More than ten million people are stateless today. In a world of nation states, they live on the margins without membership in any state, and, as a consequence, have few enforceable legal rights. Stateless individuals face gaps in protection and in many cases experience persecution that falls within the refugee paradigm. However, US asylum policy does not adequately address the myriad legal problems that confront the stateless, who have been largely invisible in the jurisprudence and academic literature.
Two federal appellate court opinions shed new light on the intersection of statelessness and refugee law in the United States. In 2010, Haile v. Holder examined the asylum claim of a young man rendered stateless when the Ethiopian government issued a decree denationalizing ethnic Eritreans. In a 2011 case, Stserba v. Holder, the court reviewed an asylum claim by a woman who became stateless when the Soviet Union collapsed, and the successor state of Estonia enacted citizenship legislation that included a language requirement. This article analyzes the opinions which suggest that state action depriving residents of citizenship on ethnic and other protected grounds warrants a presumption of persecution. This article also identifies additional circumstances in which stateless individuals may have a well-founded fear of persecution that qualifies them for asylum in the United States.
In addition, this article notes that although far too many stateless individuals face persecution, not all of them do. Stateless persons who do not fear persecution, however, are also vulnerable. The absence of state protection condemns them to a precarious existence and their inability to obtain passports or other travel documents often prevents their return to states where they formerly resided. The refusal of most states to admit non-citizens frequently keeps stateless persons in limbo. Stateless individuals stranded in the United States live under a supervisory patchwork that serves neither their interests nor those of the United States. Rather than relying on incremental case law developments and inapposite regulatory schemes, the US State Department and the Department of Homeland Security should convene a task force to report on the size and composition of the stateless population in the United States and the need to develop legislative, regulatory, and other policy guidance concerning statelessness claims.