Across the U.S., thousands of stateless people are stuck in legal limbo, unlike refugees or illegal immigrants who have clear procedural pathways though our legal system and, more key to the issue, have a tie to another country. If the government chooses, asylum seekers or illegal immigrants can be removed from the U.S. and sent back to a country of origin, but stateless people cannot be sent anywhere because no country will recognize them as their citizen.
The stateless, those without nationality or citizenship of any nation, live without any rights, protection from governments or a path to citizenship. Without the citizenship of any country, they often cannot work, vote, seek Social Security or health care, or turn to the law for protection out of fear of being prosecuted themselves.
“It may have been that their country ceased to exist or perhaps there are discriminatory laws that have been put in place, that have stripped them of their nationality,” says Lindsay Jenkins, an assistant protection officer with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). “You don’t become stateless purposefully.”
Accurate numbers are hard to come by, given the lack of a legal definition forstatelessness under U.S. immigration law and the fact that many of those affected are living in hiding. The government does not keep statistics for how many stateless are within the U.S., but according to UNHCR, the U.S. has no more than 10,000, a fraction of 1 percent of the U.S. population.
“Why should Americans care about this? One [reason] is because we generally care about helping people who are suffering,” says Anne Richard, U.S. assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration. “Second is this is so right in line with our core values that all people are created equal, and the third is that it’s a very solvable problem.”
Even though the American laws relating to stateless persons are less than friendly, the U.S. is the leading supporter of eradicating statelessness—giving $1.2 billion in the last fiscal year to UNHCR’s global efforts to encourage nations to adopt legislation to naturalize its stateless populations, strike down discriminatory laws, advocate for the right for women to pass down citizenship and encourage governments to issue and track birth certificates for migrant populations within their borders. In addition to pledging funds in support, Richard’s team at the State Department is very active internationally.
Picture: Evan (originally posted to Flickr as page 12) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons