Without a Country of Their Own, Stateless People Remain in Limbo


Karina Ambartsoumian Clough at her school in Odessa, Ukraine, 1990 / Photo courtesy of Karina Ambartsoumian Clough


Karina Ambartsoumian Clough was just three years old when her parents started preparing her and her little sister for what was going to be a long trip.

“I remember my mother putting multiple layers on us to minimize packing,” said 30-year-old Clough, a Philadelphia resident. “I also distinctly remember a train, a plane, and a boat. The train took us to Germany, where my dad called my family to say that Christmas wouldn’t be at our house this year.”

It was November 1991 and the Ambartsoumians were fleeing Soviet Russia. Clough’s grandparents on her father’s side were Armenians from the European state of Georgia who escaped the 1915 genocide led by the Ottomans that resulted in the death of 1.5 million other Armenians. Her father had met and wed her mother, a Ukrainian citizen, in the late 1980s when Georgia was under Soviet rule. A surge in nationalism in the Soviet Union during the late 1980s and early 1990 put Clough’s dark-featured father and pale-skinned mother in danger. They were subject to physical and verbal abuse by people who disapproved of their “mixed-race” marriage. This affected Clough and her sister as well. Though they were born in Odessa, Ukraine, they are listed as “Armenian” on their Soviet birth certificates, a country that doesn’t recognize them as citizens.

The ethnic persecution in Ukraine became unbearable. Clough’s father struggled to provide for the family because he couldn’t find work. At their lowest point, Clough’s parents had to live separately to avoid abuse from nationalists. The Ambartsoumians knew they had to leave the Soviet Union to give their daughters a better life elsewhere.

Clough’s parents had found a contact in Cuba who wrote them an invitation letter to apply for visas. The Ambartsoumians entered Canada on a layover without going through immigration and took a boat to Newfoundland, where they applied for political asylum and were rejected.

In December 1991, while the Ambartsoumians were still in Canada, the Soviet Union dismantled. The Ukrainian government granted citizenship to all Ukrainians but excluded those who fled. The Ambartsoumians had become stateless overnight.

Reeling from this realization and fearing deportation following several asylum appeals, the Ambartsoumians left Canada and entered the United States, also without inspection from immigration officials, and settled in Philadelphia, a sanctuary city. Their asylum request was rejected three times in the U.S., and the Ambartsoumians were finally dealt with a final order of removal in late 2001.

“A final order of removal is when immigration officers take a stateless person into custody and begin a process where they designate a country to deport this person to,” said David Baluarte, a law professor at Washington & Lee University who researches statelessness. “In the event that a person immigrated to the U.S. illegally, deportation results in the banning of this individual from the country for 10 years. But the issue is, where can a person who is undocumented everywhere in the world emigrate to?”

The Ambartsoumians felt defeated and wanted to avoid detention.

 “We went to the Ukrainian embassy to apply for visas so we could leave, but we were denied,” said Clough. “They didn’t recognize our Soviet Union birth certificates. We had nowhere to go.”

What the Ambartsoumians were subjected to next was the Intensive Supervision of Appearance program, a monitoring program for immigrants awaiting deportation proceedings. In addition to sporadic visits from ICE agents, Clough’s parents had to wear ankle monitors, their home phone was tapped, and a curfew was set for the family. ICE agents removed all gear from their house six months later, after failing to find a country to deport them to.

Clough’s parents were then registered with the Social Security Administration and received work authorization cards. Today, the family still lives in Philadelphia, where they’re susceptible to deportation and periodic ICE visits.

The United Nations defines a stateless person as someone who is not recognized as a citizen by any country and estimates that there are 10 million stateless people around the world.

“One of the largest stateless groups in the United States are from Soviet Russia,” said Baluarte, the law professor. “The successor states that formed after the fall of the USSR wrote their own nationality laws, and in many cases, those laws required some period of residence in exchange for nationality.”

The U.S. has signed several United Nations conventions, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, protecting the rights of all human beings to a nationality. But according to Baluarte, international convention is not legislation.

“The American government doesn’t recognize statelessness, but based on my research, I would imagine that there are 4,000-6,000 stateless people in the U.S. today,” said Baluarte. “These include people from the former Soviet Union, ethnic Ethiopians from Eritrea, ethnic Haitians from the Dominican Republic, and a significant number of stateless Palestinians.”

Being stateless means the family has limited access to healthcare and housing, can’t vote, travel, or take out loans. They do, however, pay taxes.

The limited access to healthcare is especially difficult for Clough, who was diagnosed with type-1 diabetes at 18 and has had to rely on expensive insulin ever since.

“I had a major identity crisis. I didn’t know how I was supposed to deal with this huge problem I had inherited,” said Clough. “Because I didn’t have work authorization, I was fired from a couple of jobs. I couldn’t open my own bank account, I couldn’t drive, I couldn’t apply for financial aid to go to college. Think of everything you would need an ID for. I couldn’t do any of those things.”

According to Baluarte, many circumstances can lead to statelessness.

“Some countries have gender-biased nationality laws where a child born to a woman who is a national and a father who isn’t, doesn’t get citizenship. Wars with an ethnic dimension to them can also create stateless groups of people. We saw that with the Jews in World War II and recently with the Rohingya in Burma.”

Karina Ambartsoumian Clough (right) with her sister in Odessa, Ukraine, 1990 / Photo courtesy of Karina Ambartsoumian Clough

A much-needed respite came when then-President Obama put Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals into place. At the age of 24, Clough was finally granted a valid ID, a work authorization card, and protected from deportation. She got a job as a manager for a farmer’s market with The Food Trust and finally received some of the security she needed in her life.

“I felt so free to be able to buy my own wine from the liquor store, and have my own name on my bank card,” said Clough.

That sense of security only lasted five years.

President Trump’s decision to put an end to DACA in 2017 was met with much objection. The House and the Senate have since tried and failed to pass legislation that can preserve DACA. In September 2018, Texas-based federal Judge Andrew Hanen held off on terminating the program outright but warned that he is likely to find it illegal eventually. Since then, about 800,000 DACA recipients have been living in fear, Clough included.

“I have a constant fear of arrest and detention,” said Clough. “I feel like I’m going to be stateless forever.”

Without DACA, Clough would once again be subject to deportation. Her husband is American and she has recently applied for an I-130 visa that allows for U.S. citizens to claim citizenship for their “alien” relatives.

“We met with United States Citizenship and Immigration Services last week and we shared our tax returns, lease, and letters from 10 family members and friends proving that we’re a real couple,” Clough said. “Had I not been on DACA, I would have been arrested at that meeting.”

Clough and her husband have since received approval from the U.S. customs official. They are now working with the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to have a determination on her status as a stateless person, a process that seeks to ensure stateless people enjoy the rights they’re entitled to under international human rights law until they acquire a nationality.

The UNHCR, however, cannot guarantee stateless people citizenship. That’s the jurisdiction of individual countries, in this case the U.S.

According to Baluarte, stateless people have a slim shot at changing their status.

“Immigration law is very complex,” Baluarte said. “Generally speaking, someone who comes into the U.S. without authorization, stays here unlawfully and marries a U.S. citizen, has a path to citizenship but would need to leave the country to file for green card. That’s the problem. The presumption that everyone belongs to a country needs to go away if we have any shot at eradicating statelessness.”

But Clough is determined to find a solution.

“My ultimate goal is to get a green card,” said Clough. “In any hardship in life, you have to be hopeful. But at this point, I just need to know. Where do I stand and what are my options?”

MIRNA ALSHARIF is a master’s student at Columbia University’s Journalism School. Mirna is passionate about using her background and personal experience to report on social justice, women’s rights, and social norms in the Middle East, topics that are heavily speculated about in today’s world and often misconstrued.  

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