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Statelessness Demands Our Attention

By Daiana Lilo, Contributing Opinion Writer
Daiana Lilo ’22 is a graduate of Cabot House and a member of United Stateless. ​​​​​​​

I graduated cum laude from Harvard College in 2022, and right now, I’m working as a paralegal in Manhattan, getting ready to apply to law schools this fall. But there’s a catch.

I’m “stateless,” which means no country will offer me citizenship. Right now, there’s a bill in Congress — the Stateless Protection Act — that could fix my legal situation and offer people like me a path to adjust our status. But until then, I’m ineligible for federal student loans, and there’s a real chance I won’t be able to afford to become a lawyer.

I’m a patriot. Yet my situation strikes me as decidedly un-American. I know America can do better to uphold our stated values. Currently, it’s failing stateless people like me.

Statelessness is a crucial human rights issue. At Harvard, I read lots of constitutional law, and my lack of citizenship seems exactly the kind of cruel and unusual punishment forbidden by the Eighth Amendment. It also contravenes Article 15 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which declares the right to a nationality.

Former Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren once referred to denationalization as “the total destruction of the individual’s status in organized society” and “a form of punishment more primitive than torture.” Why? Because it crushes an individual’s “political existence that was centuries in the development.”

Warren was right; statelessness has indeed destroyed many people’s lives. It can make us feel unable to control our own futures and instead bound to a system we cannot change. It takes our voice away from politics. It affects our autonomy and sense of belonging. It separates families, tears individuals from their childhood homes, and forbids them from growing roots in this country.

About 200,000 Americans are affected by statelessness, all with our own stories and histories. In my case, it means I can’t leave the country because I don’t have a passport. I was born in Greece, but the country does not have birthright citizenship. My family ended up moving to the United States, settling in Waterbury, Conn.

As a high schooler, I drew inspiration from American democracy, always knocking on my neighbors’ doors around election time. Even though I couldn’t vote for the candidates myself, I’ve always loved public service. But there aren’t many people with my background in elected office in America.

In Alaska, Senators Lisa A. Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Dan S. Sullivan ’87 (R-Alaska) recently secured the passage of a private bill to naturalize one stateless woman, Rebecca Trimble. I applaud their efforts. But it’s an inefficient use of government resources to pass federal legislation one person at a time, when we could implement a universal solution quickly. All we’d have to do is act.

Two members of Congress, Senator Ben L. Cardin (D-Md.) and Representative Jamie B. Raskin ’83 (D-Md.), have introduced a promising bill in Congress. The Stateless Protection Act of 2022 would create a new protected status and pathway to citizenship for people like me.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration has also made some promises. In December of 2021, the Department of Homeland Security announced it would “adopt a definition of statelessness for immigration purposes and enhance protections for stateless individuals living in the United States.” Four months later, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro N. Mayorkas reiterated this promise during a television interview, claiming that the department would realize its commitment by the end of the fiscal year.

Sadly, that fiscal year has since concluded with the administration’s promise having yet to materialize. Stateless people continue to live in utter legal confusion.

Statelessness is impossible to fully grasp if you don’t know somebody, in person, experiencing statelessness. This makes it crucial for stateless people to raise awareness of our status. I joined a new organization called United Stateless, led by people similarly in my legal situation. We’re speaking out to call attention and convince people that this issue is urgent.

It takes courage for us to speak up. When I was growing up, my family discouraged me from talking about my statelessness. I worried about how my peers might perceive me. Then, when I finally broke the ice in high school, it became something I wanted to talk about more often.

Statelessness has gone on in the quiet for too long, and its stigma has led to the exploitation of countless stateless people. But when I tell my story, people in similar circumstances often approach me and tell me how encouraged they were by hearing it. The more we connect with each other, the more we realize there is power in talking.

And I don’t just talk about my own story. I try to tell people about the challenges faced by other stateless people here in America. One of my colleagues at United Stateless, Ekaterina, has been trying to get her very ill mother into the country for years. My friend Henry is a Holocaust survivor in his eighties who has spent his life anxious because of his statelessness. Customs agents took my friend Danah to a detention facility and strip-searched her at age 15. My friend Kevin married a stateless woman and, a decade later, she remains unable to obtain citizenship. Statelessness tries as hard as it can to keep us from living productive lives.

Please raise the issue of statelessness with a colleague or friend. The more of us know and understand the issue, the quicker we can resolve things for everyone. It’s past time to help people in my situation out.

Daiana Lilo ’22 is a graduate of Cabot House and a member of United Stateless.

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