As immigration and related matters continue to spark heated political debates, one topic that doesn’t get much attention is the status of “stateless” people.

An estimated 218,000 people in the US fall into this category, defined as someone who “is not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law.” These people face unique challenges, and the legal system often has no clear answers on how to treat them. 

Lecturer Betsy Fisher, ’14, first started writing about statelessness during a Michigan Law internship with the United Nations Refugee Agency through the Program in Refugee and Asylum Law. Now serving as the US director of Talent Beyond Boundaries, she is still doing pro bono work for stateless people—and recently authored a paper that proposes solutions. 

She recently answered five questions about the issue:

1. Is there a “typical” or most common way that people end up in this status of statelessness?

There’s no one way. People might come to the US as students and find out that they are no longer recognized as nationals by their former country of citizenship. In many cases, there are changes in territory—an individual is from one country that then becomes a different country or comes under the control of a different government. One example is people who grew up in Ethiopia in territory that is now considered Eritrea. 

One really interesting fact pattern—which I’ve written an article about, to be published later this year—concerns people who are born in the United States in communities that avoid documentation and interaction with federal and local governments. They are US citizens by birth, but some are unable to access the rights of their citizenship if they have no documentation of their birth or early years.

2. What are some of the problems that stateless people face in the US?

The biggest one is the ability to work. The US government has increased its monitoring of work authorization, which means that people who don’t have documentation can face a lot of challenges. We know this not just for stateless people but also for undocumented individuals and others. 

Stateless people frequently experience immigration detention. If people apply for asylum and are denied, generally there is nowhere to deport them. So that means an extended period of detention. Assuming that they are eventually released—often after many months or, in some cases, years—they have ongoing requirements to report to immigration enforcement. Those requirements can last for the rest of their lives. 

A third common challenge is separation from family members. If you don’t have an international travel document and your family members are outside of the country, there is no way for you to reconnect with them. 

3. You argue that a legislative solution for this issue would be most effective. What would that look like, and what is preventing it?

I do pro bono advisory work with an organization called United Stateless. We’re advocating for the Stateless Protection Act, which would provide a pathway to a green card for stateless people. It also would address other challenges like immigration detention and obtaining travel documents. 

The biggest challenge is complete congressional inaction. The discussion at the moment is really focused on immigration over the southern border, and the idea of addressing hardships faced by people here in the US does not receive the attention it deserves. However, we are actively working toward reintroduction of the Stateless Protection Act later this year. Those conversations with policy makers continue.

4. In the absence of legislation, your paper suggests specific Executive Branch actions that would help. Could you describe those?

Here is, perhaps surprisingly, some good news. The US Department of Homeland Security has announced legal protections for some stateless people following the recommendations in the paper. Stateless individuals who are not in removal proceedings can now apply for a form of immigration relief called deferred action on a discretionary basis, which will give them access to short-term work authorization. Also, the government can offer an obscure form of discretionary relief called parole in place, which can help provide a pathway to a green card for some people.

Some recommendations in the paper that have not been taken up are to provide relief to people who are in immigration proceedings and are facing potential removal, or who have final orders of removal. Many individuals who are living in really difficult circumstances in the US have experienced lifelong reporting requirements already, live from one temporary work authorization to another, and experience frequent periods of unemployment in between. Not addressing that in this policy is a real shortcoming.

5. Is there anything else that the Executive Branch could be doing?

Absolutely. A few other things relate to how stateless people are treated in the immigration system. For example, most immigration processes require people to have a valid passport. The Department of Homeland Security and the State Department could amend their policies to consider other forms of identification for people who are displaced. 

Also, the US issues a Refugee Travel Document to refugees and asylees who can’t get a passport from their home country—but it is only valid for one year. It would be a tremendous benefit to stateless people who are protected through those programs to extend the validity period of that document to be significantly longer. It would avoid a ton of needless adjudications of the same document and prevent a lot of hardship and expense for people who don’t have another option.