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

stateless people

Around the world, conflicts, wars, and other geopolitical crises have left millions of people without citizenship in any country. They are called the “stateless,” a term the Biden administration has finally committed to define under US law. The United Nations estimates there are approximately 10 million stateless people around the world.

A CMS study from 2019 estimates that roughly 218,000 US residents are potentially stateless or potentially at risk of statelessness. Statelessness is a difficult concept for many Americans to grasp because, with very limited exceptions, people in the United States acquire citizenship at the time of birth in the country, and, if a US citizen has a child abroad, they can transmit their citizenship to that child. Many countries do not confer citizenship on all born in their territory, and the country of the parent might not recognize the child as a citizen of the country. For example, Miliyon Ethiopis was born 48 years ago in Ethiopia to an Ethiopian mother and an Eritrean father. In 1998, Eritrea and Ethiopia went to war. Miliyon’s father was arrested and deported to Eritrea. The Ethiopian authorities also arrested, detained, and tortured Miliyon because of his Eritrean ethnicity. Despite the fact Miliyon was born in Ethiopia, the authorities confiscated his passport claiming that he was not Ethiopian because of his Eritrean father. He fled to the United States and is now stateless.

For many stateless people, the lack of government-issued identity documents prevents them from accessing employment, housing, benefits, protection by an embassy, and travel documents. As a result, many stateless people live in legal limbo — trying to live normal lives but fearful that it can all be taken away. Defining “statelessness” provides legal recognition and is the first step in extending protection to individuals without citizenship.

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