The full impact of statelessness on my life didn't hit me until 2014, when I was trying to travel back to my country to be with my family after my dad was diagnosed with terminal cancer. My embassy informed me in no uncertain terms that I had no rights to consular assistance and that the return home was impossible. “We can not help you”, they said. “There is nothing we can do. You are not a citizen.”
This post delves into my personal experience of statelessness and how it served as a catalyst for co-founding the first nonprofit organization solely dedicated to addressing statelessness in the United States. It emphasizes the importance of building public support for the Stateless Protection Act that is presently under consideration by U.S. Congress - a bill that will effectively resolve statelessness in the U.S. Finally, I give an account of the work of United Stateless and the significance of centering stateless advocates, highlighting both their strengths and challenges, and the necessity of collective action from allies to champion the rights of stateless people in the U.S. and globally.
Originally from Soviet Central Asia, I came to the United States on a scholarship as a High School foreign exchange student three months after my 16th birthday, during the tumultuous collapse of the Soviet Union. Being part of an ethnic minority facing persecution and backlash, my family urged me to continue my education in the safety of the U.S. while they attempted to navigate the chaos and instability back home. Unfortunately, this decision resulted in the loss of my legal status, as the country that issued my passport ceased to exist.
For many years, this meant living with the fear of being detained and without access to basic necessities such as work authorization, a bank account, or legitimate identification. I was unable to regularize my status despite my best efforts through legal assistance, community involvement, or even my long-term marriage to a U.S. Citizen. Despite these challenges, I built a relatively successful career as an illustrator, paid taxes, and, ironically, even received a Citizen of the Year nomination for volunteering with a youth organization in my small town. None of it seemed to matter. I had missed an arbitrary deadline to register as a citizen with the new state that replaced the country where I was born. There was no home to return to, no passport to stamp, and no one to ask for help.
The denial from my embassy came as a shock, and the death of my father in 2015 left me adrift and isolated. I struggled with deep depression as the reality and the scope of my non-belonging truly sank in. With it, however, came a profound realization that I was a part of an underrepresented community stripped of our basic human rights. A community I had never heard of before. People without citizenship or nationality in any country, “citizens of nowhere” were scattered across the world, and I was one of them.
As the months went by, I slowly recovered my footing. The drive to understand my stateless status became an impetus to go on.
In the summer of 2016 I came across an article about a stateless woman from Ukraine living in the US who had lost her nationality after seeking asylum with her youngest son. I reached out to her immediately, and through her was introduced to a stateless activist from Estonia also searching for people in a similar situation. I was suddenly no longer alone! There were others - a Rohingya doctor in Milwakee, a brave Armenian-Ukrainian woman in Philadelphia, a young Bidoon woman in New York, and an Eritrean-Ethiopian torture survivor in Maryland - and it was only a matter of time before we connected, shared stories, and began to ask questions together.
We formally established United Stateless (USL) as a nonprofit organization after a series of in-person meetings in Washington DC under the auspices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in 2018.
The United States has not signed any of the international statelessness treaties, such as the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons or the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. As such, there is no definition of statelessness or provisions in its law to safeguard the rights of stateless people. In the U.S. people like us have no path to lawful status nor the ability to leave the country to seek help elsewhere.
Our diverse group made it immediately clear that statelessness is not a solitary issue in the U.S., and our stories and experiences served as a compelling motivating force to launch United Stateless as the first and only organization solely dedicated to addressing statelessness in the U.S., with stateless people at the helm, empowered and inspired to build a community and to advocate for our human rights.
Building Capacity & Solidarity
Over the following few years United Stateless continued to build capacity in several key areas. We quickly realized that in order to achieve our goals we need support from a diverse range of allies. While our stories and experiences shaped and inspired our mission and vision, without proper resources such as funding, as well as expertise of our citizen allies, we were simply not equipped to tackle the monumental problem before us.
Stateless advocates face significant obstacles from the outset, burdened by their lack of status and the vulnerabilities that accompany it. Therefore, collective action and solidarity from allies is essential, and we were fortunate to develop strong partnerships with UNHCR, Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion (ISI), RedANA, ENS, and other organizations and individuals.
These partnerships were built on mutual trust and respect, recognizing us as experts rather than passive victims due to our lived experience of statelessness.
Another challenge we immediately faced was the near total lack of accurate data on statelessness in the United States. By continuously participating in research projects, we have been able to gain a more nuanced and informed understanding of the issue.
In 2020 the Center for Migration Studies released a pioneering report, which our members assisted in by giving interviews and helping conduct further outreach to the stateless community. The report uncovered a number far greater than previously thought with 218,000 potentially stateless or at risk of statelessness persons from over 30 countries and territories living in all 50 states in the U.S. While about a half of that number qualifies for citizenship through their refugee status, the rest has no clear path.
With support from the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion we were able to explore the disproportionate effects of COVID -19 on the stateless community in the U.S. Most recently, a report published by the University of Chicago Law School’s Global Human Rights Clinic exposed the brutal realities faced by stateless persons in U.S. detention centers. Unable to leave the U.S. because we are not recognized as citizens of any other country, and lacking legal status in the U.S., stateless people often face prolonged or even indefinite detention.
From the beginning we understood the importance of a secure and welcoming environment for connection and to share our stories. This ultimately paved the way for the creation of the USL Community Call, which is designed to provide a ‘safe and brave’ space for stateless individuals to receive support from one another. Our allies from the Center for Victims of Torture play a vital role in facilitating these calls and ensuring that stateless people have access to the resources and support they need to navigate their unique challenges.
With more people bravely stepping forward from the shadows, our stateless community continued to grow. With this came the increasing need to be able to provide practical assistance to those who reached out to us. To this end, we established an Intake & Referral Program aiming at connecting stateless persons with legal and/ or social services, and through partnerships with organizations such as UNHCR and HIAS, worked to develop a legal representation model that specifically addresses the unique needs of stateless individuals.
Finally, we ceaselessly continued to advocate in as many circles as we could. In addition to advocacy through U.N. human rights channels, this included organizing training webinars to educate the legal community in the U.S., speaking to students at law schools and universities, participating in conferences and podcast interviews, and engaging with the media.
Launching Our Advocacy Strategy
In March 2021, United Stateless brought together a task force via Zoom to draft a more comprehensive advocacy strategy to address statelessness in the U.S. Our collective growth and preparation at that point were undeniable. The virtual meeting was filled with a diverse group of experts, including stateless persons, legislative experts, advocates, legal professionals, and academics. Despite our differing backgrounds, we all shared a passion and belief in the power of community to make a historic impact.
While legislation is, undoubtedly, the ultimate solution to ending statelessness in the U.S., the group also recognized that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has the power to establish a regulatory process or administrative policy to identify stateless people and subsequently offer them immigration benefits and relief.
That summer United Stateless sent a letter to DHS outlining the problem of statelessness in the U.S., as well as offering recommendations for administrative actions the department could take to alleviate harm experienced by our vulnerable community on a daily basis.
Our efforts did not go unnoticed! In a groundbreaking move, the DHS announced in December 2021 its commitment to support stateless people in the United States. The agency acknowledged the pressing human rights implications of statelessness and vowed to pursue concrete solutions. A year on, we are still hopeful. And as we wait, we continue to advocate, bringing marginalized voices and perspectives to the forefront and pushing for recognition of statelessness as a human rights issue that urgently needs attention.
The Stateless Protection Act
As someone directly affected by statelessness I can attest to the feeling of empowerment that comes with being able to participate in meaningful discussions about solutions. This is especially important to those of us who have been deprived of our legal identity and agency. By actively engaging, and providing real-life examples from personal experience, members of the stateless community were able to directly inform and guide the creation of a bill that we dubbed the Stateless Protection Act (SPA).
The resolute determination of a community committed to ending statelessness has paved the way for the silenced voices of stateless people in the U.S. to be heard, and their struggles to be acknowledged. These efforts culminated in December 2022, when the Stateless Protection Act was introduced to the U.S. Congress by U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, and Rep. Jamie Raskin.
I truly believe that this moment holds tremendous potential for the stateless community not only in the U.S., but world-wide. If the Stateless Protection Act passes, it will serve as a powerful example for other countries. With an estimated 10 to 15 million stateless people worldwide, the U.S. has a unique opportunity to establish itself as a human rights leader by taking decisive action to end statelessness within its own borders.
This comprehensive piece of legislation guided by international human rights standards has the potential to effect transformative change in the lives of stateless people in the U.S., providing them with a nationality, safety, security, and access to essential services. It would put an end to prolonged or indefinite detention, as well as arbitrary reporting requirements for stateless people. It would mean not being afraid to report a crime, and being able to travel safely and reunite with family.
Beyond that, it would uphold and restore human dignity to those trapped in statelessness in the United States, allowing them to reclaim and assert their identity, opening pathways to housing, employment, education, and healthcare.
The U.S. legislative process can be lengthy, and there are numerous challenges ahead such as building support on both sides of the political spectrum in the House and the Senate, raising awareness among the general public, developing needed resources, as well as the capacity of civil society to better represent, and advocate for the rights of stateless people.
Only a few years ago, I could not have imagined that I would find myself at the forefront of a movement and a project with such a lofty aim as policy and legislative change in the U.S.
All I wanted was to go home to say goodbye to my father, to see my sister after a decades-long separation, to meet my niece, to hug my mother… I am hopeful I may yet get the chance to do so. My mom, who had been struggling with illness for many years, is finally feeling good enough to travel. She is now awaiting her visa interview, and I am daring to believe that she will finally be able to visit me in the USA this summer. I am also daring to believe that someday, in the not too distant future, I too will hold a passport in my hand, and be free.
The journey to address one of the most critical human rights issues of our time continues. And I take heart in the unwavering commitment and passion of ordinary people who, together, can inspire extraordinary change. The resilience and determination of the stateless community and their allies are a testament to the transformative power of advocacy in support of the dignity and rights for all human beings.