Karina Ambartsoumian-Clough is a stateless person living in the United States.
"I'm from a country that doesn't exist anymore," Ambartsoumian-Clough told VOA. She is one of the 218,000 stateless people living in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which on Tuesday said it would clarify what stateless means for immigration purposes.
Ambartsoumian-Clough says it is a "huge step forward in terms of recognizing people like us in this country."
On Thursday, DHS organized a private listening session on the statelessness policy.
DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas led the meeting. The conversation, according to attendees who spoke with VOA on background, was to figure out the next steps. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is also expected to organize a public meeting on this policy soon.
The DHS announcement promises to develop and implement new procedures so that USCIS officials can be better prepared to assess whether someone is stateless and outline examples of evidence that can aid USCIS officers in that determination.
"The United States does not currently make determinations about whether someone is stateless. In addition, the fact that a person is stateless does not provide her or him with any benefit or status under U.S. law," per the UNHCR, the U.N. Refugee Agency, website.
Citizens of nowhere
Ambartsoumian-Clough still clearly remembers the day she found out she and her parents were stateless.
Ambartsoumian-Clough's father was Armenian. He was born in Tbilisi, Georgia, and was a descendant of Armenian genocide survivors. Her mother is from Ukraine, born just outside of Odesa, in Voznesensk. Ambartsoumian-Clough's grandparents also survived regional turmoil and the Holocaust.
When her parents were born, both regions were part of the Soviet Union. But it dissolved in the early 1990s into 15 countries. After 70 years, the Soviet Union suddenly no longer existed.
Ambartsoumian-Clough was born in Odesa in 1988, when the Soviet Union still existed.
"My parents had me as a mixed ethnic child; half Armenian and half Ukrainian, and that was a problem. My parents had a really, really hard time being a family with me. There was a lot of violence my parents experienced. My dad was targeted for his ethnicity in Odesa. My mom suffered a miscarriage in my dad's city because she was beaten up in the streets," Ambartsoumian-Clough said.
When she was 3 years old, the family realized it was not safe for them in Odesa. They made their way to Canada in 1992. They lived there for four years but were denied permanent residence. They came to the U.S. in 1996 where they applied for asylum. Their case took almost five years and once again they were denied a path to apply for permanent status in the U.S.
At 13, Ambartsoumian-Clough and her parents were told they had to leave the United States.
"We were told to return [to Ukraine]. And we went to the Ukrainian Embassy to get our passports. … And that's when they said, 'We don't recognize you as one of our own.' And that shocked us. That was very confusing to us. Just how can it be that you're just not recognized in the country that you're born? I mean, my family has a history in Ukraine. My grandfather was a community leader, a Baptist minister," she said.
The family found themselves in a complex situation: even if they wanted to leave the U.S., they could not because they were citizens of nowhere.
"I became stateless … and we didn't know what that meant. We never even heard of that issue. The first thing my parents said to me was, 'Isn't this like Tom Hanks and The Terminal?' And it's true, it's like, yeah, instead of being stuck in an airport, we were limited to the United States, but we have really exhausted all options. The law didn't recognize people like us, and we can't return because no one recognizes us as their own. And that was about 25 years ago, and I'm 35 years old now. And I'm still in this limbo status," she added.
The concept of statelessness might be difficult for many people to understand, especially Americans, given that the U.S. Constitution guarantees citizenship to anyone born within its borders. That is not the case in many countries.
Geopolitical events like war or the dissolution of a government, such as the former Soviet Union, can lead to statelessness. In some countries, women are not allowed to acquire, retain or change their nationality. They might also not be allowed to transfer nationality to their children, which very often results in statelessness.
Stateless in the US
With nowhere to go, Ambartsoumian-Clough and her parents stayed in the U.S. Her father worked as a painter. Her mother started a cleaning business.
"And I just tried to be normal, you know, and I tried to be Karina from Upper Darby, you know, outside of [Philadelphia], and just be normal. But when I became 18, that's when things really changed because I became an adult. I became an adult without any access to a legal identity," she said.
The only documents Ambartsoumian-Cloug had were a birth certificate from a country that didn't exist anymore and her U.S. school identification card.
But when she tried to find a job, get a cellphone plan, or a bank account, she needed a government-issued identification.
"I didn't have access to an identification. So we couldn't work or find legal means to work. So, I worked a lot in restaurants. … I did the best I could with that. And in that time, I was in a process of extreme denial. I was 22 years old and living in [Philadelphia] … I didn't want to deal with this immigration problem and kept putting it in the back. But it kept becoming a big deal in my life over and over again," she said.
Ambartsoumian-Cloug met someone, fell in love, and got married in 2013 to a U.S. citizen.
"When we got married, we were five years together. And we actually went to Maryland to get married because Maryland state does not require a valid form of ID to get married. So we went to Elkton, Maryland, and got a marriage certificate, the first legal document I had with my name on it," she said.
Through the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, Congress established the family immigration procedures we know today. With the law, Congress created a preference system that allows U.S. citizens to sponsor immediate relatives, including spouses, without any numerical limits.
But even that cannot help a stateless person in the United States.
Margaret Stock, an immigration attorney in Anchorage, Alaska, told VOA that usually a stateless person does not have the documentation that is necessary to apply for a legal permanent residency status, also known as green card, and get it approved.
"USCIS requires certain documentation before they'll approve somebody for a green card, and one of the requirements is the person has to show valid documents that prove that they're from a foreign country," Stock said.
As a stateless person, people have all kinds of obstacles to applying for U.S. immigration benefits.
"And the government of the United States doesn't care necessarily about the fact that you're married to an American. They want to see documents proving that you're a citizen of another country, so if you can't show that you have a very difficult time applying for benefits," Stock said.
Ambartsoumian-Clough said she hopes DHS guidance finally establishes a definition of statelessness in line with the internationally accepted definition to help those in limbo.
She eventually met other stateless people and started United Stateless, a national organization led by stateless people whose mission is to advocate for their human rights.
She also hopes the U.S. Congress passes legislation to codify into immigration law how a person with stateless status can file for permanent residency.
In the meantime, she lives in Pennsylvania with her husband, Kevin. Her mother is still living, but her father died in December.
"My dad passed away as a stateless person. And he's been here since 1996. He never got to reunite with his parents, never got to really build the American Dream my parents always wanted," she said.