Hundreds of thousands of stateless people are living in legal limbo in the U.S.

Conflicts, wars, and other geopolitical crises around the world have left millions of people without a country. They are called “the stateless," and their plight is finally being recognized by the Biden administration. Stephanie Sy reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Around the world, conflicts, wars and other geopolitical crises have left millions of people without a country. They are called the stateless.

    And, as Stephanie Sy report, their plight is finally being recognized by the Biden administration.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Miliyon Ethiopis has never had a vacation. Every day, he drives a few miles from his apartment in Prince George's County, Maryland, to the multiple gas stations that he manages, often working 12-hour days.

  • Miliyon Ethiopis, Stateless Individual:

    This is probably like my second home. All my vitamins are here.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Stephanie Sy:

    The 48-year-old lives alone, worried about starting a relationship.

  • Miliyon Ethiopis:

    I don't want to add any bag — my bag if I…

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Your baggage?

  • Miliyon Ethiopis:

    Yes, I love — I would love to be in a relationship. I'm kind of scared, like, to share my story.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    His story begins in Ethiopia, the son of an Ethiopian mother and an Eritrean father.

    In 1998, the neighboring countries went to war, and Miliyon's father was in prison, then deported to Eritrea. Miliyon, who was 24 at the time, his siblings and his mother stayed in Ethiopia.

    And you were also detained at some point by the Ethiopian government?

  • Miliyon Ethiopis:

    Yes. Two — three government officer, they came, they picked me up.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Why? On what grounds?

  • Miliyon Ethiopis:

    Because of my Eritrea ethnicity. And they just torture me.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    They tortured you?

  • Miliyon Ethiopis:

    They tortured me. Like, here are the scars, and here.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    His mother encouraged him to flee the country for the U.S.

  • Miliyon Ethiopis:

    So, when I went there to that immigration office, they confiscate my passport.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Because your passport was Ethiopian.

  • Miliyon Ethiopis:

    Yes.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    But, because you were ethnically Eritrean through your father…

  • Miliyon Ethiopis:

    Yes. Yes.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    … they confiscated your Ethiopian passport?

  • Miliyon Ethiopis:

    Passport, yes.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    That was the moment Miliyon Ethiopis became stateless.

    Statelessness may be hard to grasp for many Americans, because the U.S. Constitution guarantees citizenship for anyone born here. That's not the case in a lot of other countries. The United Nations defined stateless people as individuals who don't have the recognition or protection of any country.

    Geopolitical events like war can cause statelessness, as can the dissolution of a government, such as the former Soviet Union. That's how Karina Ambartsoumian-Clough became stateless. She was a victim of the last political upheaval in Eastern Europe. She is also the child of a mixed ethnic marriage.

  • Karina Ambartsoumian-Clough, Stateless Individual:

    My dad's Armenian. My mom's Ukrainian. My parents are both born in Soviet Union. My dad was born in Tbilisi, descendant of Armenian genocide, survivors that migrated there.

    But my mom grew up Ukrainian. She was born outside in Odessa, in Voznesensk to two parents that also survived, like, turmoil and holocaust. Like, there's a lot of remnants of survival and lack of nationality, lack of protection.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Her parents experienced discrimination in the Soviet Union, she says.

  • Karina Ambartsoumian-Clough:

    In Ukraine, my dad had a hard time living there with us. He was assaulted many times.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    For being Armenian.

  • Karina Ambartsoumian-Clough:

    Yes.

    My parents were very scared for me as a 4-year-old. With an Armenian name, it wasn't safe for us. They were scared. They're like, we need to get out.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    They went to Canada in 1992, where they lived for four years, but were denied legal status. During that time, the Soviet Union collapsed.

    When Karina was 8, they came to the U.S., but immigration authorities denied them asylum status and issued an order of removal when Karina was 13.

  • Karina Ambartsoumian-Clough:

    And I remember we were also given — advised to go to the Ukrainian embassy to retrieve travel documents.

    I remember being told, like, sorry, we don't recognize you as a citizen.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    By the Ukrainian embassy?

  • Karina Ambartsoumian-Clough:

    By the Ukrainian embassy.

    And the word stateless was never presented to us. I had — we were never told we were stateless.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Even if they'd wanted to, Karina and her parents had no way to self-deport. They were citizens of nowhere.

    Joanne Kelsey with the U.N.'s Refugee Agency says stateless people face significant barriers in daily life.

    Joanne Kelsey, Prosecution Officer, United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees: In the United States specifically, a lot of stateless people don't have legal identity. They don't have a document that shows who they are.

    Some people have an expired passport. But some people have nothing. And so it's difficult to get services if you don't have legal documentation. Some of the stateless people that I have met have been separated from their families and their loved ones for decades.

    Employment is very difficult. Some stateless people I have met have been homeless or have been near homeless.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Worldwide, the U.N. estimates there are some 10 million stateless people. In the U.S., estimates are in the low hundreds of thousands.

    It's difficult to pinpoint the number of stateless people living in the United States. Late last year, the Department of Homeland Security announced a commitment to defining statelessness. That could lead to more protections.

    Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas addressed what stateless people could expect under the Biden administration.

    Will this policy change mean that stateless people can obtain government-issued I.D.s or travel documents or authorization to work legally in this country?

    Alejandro Mayorkas, U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security: What we are going to be studying as we define statelessness, explore the law to determine what benefits stateless people might be entitled to, it is our desire to bring stability and humanity to their experience here in the United States.

    But I will tell you that we are going to move with the urgency that the vulnerabilities warrant. And so it is our goal to define statelessness and to really map out what will be available to them and our ability to deliver on that this year, this fiscal year.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Miliyon Ethiopis feels that vulnerability every time he drives. Maryland allows undocumented immigrants to obtain a limited driver's license.

    You have been living here for more than a decade. Does this feel like home?

  • Miliyon Ethiopis:

    Yes, this is home. This is safer. But I'm always careful. I don't drive fast. And I don't have any tickets. I don't drive late.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    He's worried about any run in with police that could lead to losing his license or, worse, detention.

    You're working really hard. You go to church. You're doing all the things a good citizen would do. But you have no citizenship.

  • Miliyon Ethiopis:

    We always try to maintain, like do normal things, what American asking, go to work, pay tax, be a good citizen, no criminal, nothing. And we go back. We pay tax and everything.

    But, at the end of the day, you don't get anything back.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Karina Ambartsoumian-Clough was able to gain DACA status eight years ago. But even though she and her American husband have been married for nearly 10 years, she still has no pathway to citizenship, nor do her now aging parents, who have never gone back to their homeland.

  • Karina Ambartsoumian-Clough:

    Not being a citizen of any country in the world limits you for your access to your human rights. Without having a country that recognizes me, I don't have any laws that protect me. There's no embassy I can go to. There's no — I don't have access to travel documents. I…

  • Stephanie Sy:

    You don't have a passport.

  • Karina Ambartsoumian-Clough:

    I don't have a passport.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Which means you can't leave the U.S.

  • Karina Ambartsoumian-Clough:

    I can't leave the U.S. I can't — yes.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    So, you have not been able to leave the U.S. since you were 8 years old?

  • Karina Ambartsoumian-Clough:

    Yes.

    This is something that affects a majority of stateless people. It's one common aspect. There's a lot of mourning with the status, mourning of things that you could have had or things you could have been.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Karina and Miliyon have very different backgrounds, but now a shared mission. They started United Stateless, an advocacy organization pushing Congress to pass legislation to permanently protect the stateless, their only hope for legal status in this country.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Stephanie Sy in Washington.

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