When will the US fulfil its promises to stateless people?

The Biden administration has the power to end the needless suffering of stateless people in the United States.

The Homeland Security Department headquarters in northwest Washington [File photo: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP]
On December 15, 2021, the DHS announced its commitment 'to adopt a definition of statelessness for immigration purposes and enhance protections for stateless individuals' [File photo: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP]

The US Department of State has recently called on governments around the world to implement the pledges they made to protect stateless people – people who, as defined by the UN, are “not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law”.

But there are an estimated 200,000 stateless people in the US and they, too, need protection. I know this because I am one of them.

Yes, I am a stateless individual, a citizen of nowhere.

I was born in what is now Ukraine to a family of mixed Armenian and Ukrainian heritage. We faced discrimination due to our ethnicity in the Soviet Union,  so we made our way to North America to build ourselves a better life. There, unfortunately, our claim for asylum would be denied.

When the Iron Curtain collapsed and Ukraine became an independent nation, my parents and I became stateless. We have never lived in post-independence Ukraine, so it does not recognise us as citizens.

I am currently allowed to work in the US as a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipient, but recent court decisions placed the future of DACA, and my ability to work in this country, in question. As I do not have a passport, I cannot leave the US.

Despite the many uncertainties in my future and many restrictions I face in my life due to my stateless status, I know there are stateless people in this country who are going through even more difficult struggles than mine.

Many stateless people in the US, for example, are not eligible for DACA and hence cannot work legally in the country. Some end up in immigration detention and find themselves stuck there for years as they do not have a homeland they can be deported to.

Currently, in the US there is no legislation that allows for stateless people to regularise their immigration status. This means few stateless people in the country have a legal pathway to obtain citizenship.

For most stateless people in the US to practice their human right to a nationality, Congress would need to pass specific legislation. Until then, all we can do is to try and secure discretionary decisions that ease our daily struggles and hope for the best.

I found the US government’s recent statement urging all governments to implement pledges they made to stateless people striking, as it is also yet to fulfil one such pledge.

On December 15, 2021, the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced its commitment “to adopt a definition of statelessness for immigration purposes and enhance protections for stateless individuals living in the United States”.

In April 2022, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas affirmed this commitment during an appearance on PBS NewsHour, noting that his department would “move with the urgency that the vulnerabilities warrant” and aimed “to deliver on that this year, this fiscal year”.

The fiscal year that Secretary Mayorkas listed as the deadline for action ended last month. Yet, stateless people continue to live in legal limbo and face extreme vulnerabilities.

The US government of course already has the authority to assess whether a non-citizen is stateless and to consider statelessness as a factor in its decisions to grant benefits or exercise prosecutorial discretion on a case-by-case basis. By taking such simple steps, the authorities could extend a lifeline to thousands of people stuck in legal limbo, including me.

In April 2023, my American husband and I will celebrate our 10th wedding anniversary. Despite being married to an American citizen for nearly a decade, however, I can only apply for a green card on the basis of my marriage if the US government grants me “parole in place” – a discretionary administrative tool that allows a non-citizen who came into the US without authorisation by an immigration officer to stay here legally for a certain period of time.

I filed a request for parole in place in January 2022 but did not yet receive a response. Obtaining this status would completely change my life. It would eventually allow me to become a citizen of the country I have lived in since I was eight years old. I could then get a passport and finally visit my Ukrainian relatives, now displaced throughout Europe. I could even make a pilgrimage to my ancestral homeland, Armenia.

Putting me – someone who came to this country as a child – on this relatively straightforward path to citizenship is completely within the authority of the Biden administration. But despite all the promises made by the DHS, the authorities have yet to take any action.

Every stateless person in the US has a different story. But they all share similar frustrations and fears.

My friend, Miliyon Ethiopis, for example, came to this country from Ethiopia some 21 years ago seeking safety and protection. He had lost his Ethiopian citizenship due to his ethnic heritage and was made stateless. Since arriving in the US, he has been working hard, paying his taxes, going to church and doing everything he can to be a productive member of American society. Nevertheless, he too has no legal path to citizenship. Like me, Miliyon has filed a request for discretionary relief that could allow him to regularise his immigration status and take steps towards citizenship. We are hopeful the authorities respond with a positive outcome.

Miliyon and I have very different backgrounds, but we share a mission: We want to put an end to the needless suffering of stateless people in the US. This is why together we started United Stateless, an advocacy organisation pushing Congress to pass legislation to permanently protect the stateless.

Last year, we celebrated Secretary Mayorkas’ historic commitment to helping people like us. But a year on, we are done with promises, we need concrete, immediate action. In recent months, communities across the US have been mobilising to welcome Ukrainians and Afghans fleeing war, oppression and discrimination. While we cheered and supported these efforts, we couldn’t help but wonder: When will it be our turn? It is high time for the Biden administration to make good on its promise to help us – stateless people who have no place to call home other than our adopted nation, America.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.