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US Promises to Define 'Statelessness'

By Airi Price

The US immigration system has long been contested, with the discussions of immigrant protection and rights adopting increasingly polarized viewpoints. In recent years, legislation concerning entry into the US has targeted immigrants of particular nationalities. Within such debates, the subject of statelessness is rarely acknowledged. In December of 2021, however, the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) pledged to adopt a formal definition of statelessness, in efforts to recognize the individuals trapped in such despondent conditions.


UNHCR presents the international legal definition of statelessness as “a person who is not considered as a national of any state under the operation of its law.” Without official affiliation with a country, stateless individuals are left completely vulnerable to human rights violations and denied access to basic services that nationals are often entitled to.


| "The first step is adopting a federal definition of statelessness, upon which to base processes for acquiring legal immigration and documentation"

Such services include, but are not limited to: public education, national healthcare, right to marriage, employment, and legal documentation (such as birth and death certificates). Upon further consideration, the dehumanizing nature of statelessness becomes gravely apparent.


One can become stateless either at birth or at some point during their lifetime. Discriminatory policies – that deprive citizenship on the basis of race, religion, and ethnicity, among other factors – are a prominent cause. Whole minority or indigenous populations may be subject to such prejudiced regulations. Other causes, as noted by UNHCR, include the misappropriation of nationality laws, movement from the country of birth without proper documentation, birth in a foreign country with ambiguous nationality laws, and the development of new states or borders. Once stateless, individuals risk transferring this status to their children. Given this, a cycle of generational statelessness arises.


Historical disregard of statelessness has resulted in very limited information on the current distribution and size of the global stateless populations. The most updated data on statelessness in the US is provided by the Center for Migration Studies of New York.


Their 2017 census reports that stateless individuals are present in all 50 states, with the largest concentrations found in California (20,600), New York (18,500), and Texas (15,200). The total number of stateless or at-risk individuals living in the US is estimated to be 218,000, per Center for Migration Studies of New York.


The US has yet to develop a coherent legal framework to mediate statelessness. In response to their previous inaction, the DHS announced its plan for reducing barriers to legal immigration status for the stateless. The first step is adopting a federal definition of statelessness, upon which to base processes for acquiring legal immigration and documentation. The DHS will collaborate with the Department of State in identifying common barriers to immigration relief. Additionally, the DHS intends to update and broaden the available data on stateless individuals in the US.


Acknowledgment of statelessness is especially crucial during the COVID-19 pandemic, as many countries have suspended immigration processes and made government resources accessible only to nationals. Measures enacted by the DHS not only validates the condition of statelessness, but initiates a framework for facilitating the unique challenges that stateless individuals are subjected to worldwide. UNHCR commends US efforts, as it advances the goals of their #IBelong campaign.

Launched in November of 2014, #IBelong maintains their goal to end statelessness by 2024.











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