Life after Limbo: Stateless Persons in the United States and the Role of International Protection in Achieving a Legal Solution (David C. Baluarte, n 29 Geo. Immigr. L.J. 351, 2015)

Mikhail came to the United States from Turkmenistan on a Soviet passport when he was twenty-two. This was the final destination of a long circuitous journey that began when his ethnically Armenian family was forced to flee Azerbaijan, his country of birth, during the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia. He initially sought refuge in Russia, but faced strong anti-Armenian sentiments that kept him and his family moving. He entered Turkmenistan easily at a time when it was part of the Soviet Union, and traveled to the United States on a Soviet travel document at his earliest opportunity to seek safe haven.

In the United States, Mikhail applied for asylum, but his application was denied because the harm he suffered was not considered suffi- ciently severe to merit such relief. He was ordered removed to Russia, or Turkmenistan in the alternative. However, Mikhail’s Soviet travel documents had expired and the independent countries of Russia and Turkmenistan did not consider him a citizen, and therefore refused his return. Mikhail was ultimately placed into detention while immigration authorities carried out efforts to remove him to Azerbaijan and Armenia. However, neither of those countries would take him—Azerbaijan, because it considered him Armenian, and Armenia, because it did not. Mikhail languished in detention without any clear solution to his situation. He applied for travel documents from more than a dozen countries, and was soon forced to recognize that there was no country in the world that considered him its national, and that none would ever take him. He was stateless, unwanted and completely without the protection of any nation. The immigration authorities were eventually forced to admit that chances for his removal were so remote that he had to be released.

Mikhail lived more than a decade on supervised release from detention, surviving under varying levels of restriction placed on him by the immigration officials charged with his supervision in Houston and Los Angeles. Mikhail travelled to American Samoa on vacation in 2012, made a day trip to Western Samoa, and inadvertently executed his removal order. He spent the next year of his life stranded in American Samoa, living on the kindness of strangers and working desperately to return to his life in the mainland United States. Mikhail’s health suffered, as he toiled day-after-day sending messages around the world in hopes that someone would take up his case. It was only through tireless advocacy by Mikhail, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and a cadre of lawyers that it was possible to convince U.S. immigration authorities to exercise their humanitarian discretionary authority to permit his return to the U.S. mainland. Mikhail returned to his stateless legal limbo, threatened again by removal proceedings, detention, or worse.