Stateless in America: Part I

By Avy Mallik
Mikhail Sebastian

Exactly one year ago, a historic summit took place in Geneva on the rights of refugees and stateless people. On December 9, 2011, the United States and 154 other nations met to discuss the importance of the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1954 and 1961 Statelessness Conventions. But what made the conference historic was not the debate, but the pledges.

In all, 62 countries announced specific steps to reduce or eliminate statelessness that day – the most ever. And while the U.S. is not a signatory to the Statelessness Conventions, it also pledged to reduce statelessness both domestically and abroad.

Statelessness within the U.S. continues to be an under-scrutinized problem. At the Geneva ministerial, the U.S. made two specific pledges related to domestic statelessness: 1) to support the passage of legislation that would allow stateless persons to obtain permanent residency and eventually citizenship, and 2) to ease restrictions on stateless persons when going through administrative processes relating to detention – these include reviewing when they would have to report to the authorities, and when they might be able to access to work permits.

Unfortunately, there is still much work to achieve these goals and fully resolve the issue of statelessness in America. This blog series will discuss domestic statelessness through the lens of one particular stateless person: Mikhail Sebastian. Mikhail is one of several thousand stateless residents in the U.S. – a largely invisible group of people who often consider the U.S. their only home.

Citizenship Erased by History

Mikhail was born in the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan, but his parents were ethnic Armenians from the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. “We were caught in the middle of the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan” that broke out in 1988, Mikhail explains. “We escaped and lived first in Russia and then in Turkmenistan.” After the Soviet Union’s dissolution in 1991, however, Turkmenistan and other USSR successor states enacted laws limiting citizenship to certain ethnic groups, or requiring citizens to have been residents for a certain period of time. Like thousands of others, Mikhail and his family fell through those legal loopholes and became stateless.

While in Turkmenistan, Mikhail endured beatings and discrimination due to his religion and ethnicity. As a gay man, he also lived in constant fear of imprisonment, as homosexuality is illegal under Turkmen law. So in 1995, at the age of 22, he legally entered the United States on a business visa affixed to a Soviet passport. Turkmenistan, like several other former Soviet republics, continued to allow its residents to travel using Soviet documents while they updated their passport system. But in fact, his passport offered no protection. Since he had not acquired citizenship in Turkmenistan before he left, and because the Soviet Union no longer existed, he could not claim his former nationality.

A few weeks after his arrival in the U.S., Mikhail realized he would remain in America due to the continual threat of persecution in Turkmenistan. “I called my mom in Turkmenistan and told her my decision,” he says. “She cried, but she agreed with me that I had to find a way to get out of Turkmenistan because of my situation. So, on December 24th, 1995, when I was supposed to leave the U.S. for Turkmenistan, I escaped. I only had $30 in pocket, but I was now in the U.S.”

Mikhail’s decision is one that hundreds of immigrants and asylum seekers make each day in America. Most of them, however, have a country to return to if their plans fail. Mikhail did not: in the eyes of the law, he was a man from nowhere with nowhere else to go.

Part II of this series will discuss Mikhail’s experience in U.S immigration court.