Three United Stateless Co-Founders Miliyon Ethiopis (left), Henry Pachnowski (Center) and Karina Ambartsoumian-Clough (right) in Washington, D.C., in early August. Image credit: UNHCR.
Stateless people in America rejoiced last month with a major win. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced it would define statelessness. It said it would also consider statelessness in ruling on people's status. At the time we greeted the news with joy. At United Stateless, we said it paved the way for the 200,000-or-so stateless people in the U.S. to move forward. Those of us caught in a legal limbo, where no country will claim us as a citizen, saw a big breakthrough. While not guaranteeing a path to citizenship, the ruling did give real hope to us.
But with every step forward, there are also some challenges. We have seen these challenges in a recent case involving a co-founder of United Stateless, Miliyon. His case appears to show that DHS officials are not talking to each other to implement this new guidance.
In Miliyon's case, attorneys for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) are not considering Miliyon’s stateless status as a factor in his case. Miliyon's attorneys obtained prosecutorial discretion from ICE and the Immigration Judge granted the joint motion to reopen. But, now, ICE plans to litigate the case fully and designate Ethiopia as his country of removal. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees found that Miliyon was stateless in 2017. But the ICE attorneys are refusing to recognize his stateless finding. They're telling the court that they want him deported to Ethiopia. It is perplexing. Miliyon’s attorneys are also asking ICE attorneys to stipulate, or agree, that Miliyon is deserving of asylum. That is because it is clear to him that if he goes back to Ethiopia, death is waiting. But the ICE attorneys are fighting Miliyon’s attorneys on that point, too.
To be clear: ICE represents DHS. DHS is the department that issued the guidance on statelessness in August. It appears that the ICE attorneys are on their own path. DHS officials don’t appear to have instructed their attorneys and other department heads that they must implement practices that align, at least, or further, at best, the new policy.
We would like to think the situation is the result of a bureaucratic snafu. Still, the next hearing in Miliyon's case is coming up on Thursday. And it is not clear if the various DHS employees will be on the same page by then. Meanwhile, the stress this puts on Miliyon is real. Those of us who know him from United Stateless' monthly community calls know how long he has been fighting. And he is a great example of how stateless people in America contribute to society. Until recently he managed eight gas stations in the D.C. area, seven days a week. Miliyon never took a day off, not for illness, not for vacation, ensuring that his gas stations served those needing to travel to work or loved ones on a daily basis.
Miliyon's statelessness and risk of harm in Ethiopia do not seem in any doubt, apart from by the ICE attorneys. He was born in Ethiopia, but because his father was born in next-door Eritrea, he was unlucky. There has been a bloody conflict between the two countries since the 1990s. Based on his Eritrean blood, the Ethiopians tortured him in prison for three months. When he got out of prison, he fled the country. And he has sought protection and legal status since he arrived here in America. He even went to the Ethiopian embassy begging them for an Ethiopian passport, but they told him, “No."
DHS officials must discuss how to consistently implement the new statelessness guidance across its agencies. We need them to act with consistency and apply the guidance in Miliyon's case, in line with the DHS policy announcement on statelessness. They also need to recognize Miliyon’s asylum claim.
Many of us who are stateless have fled governments who have rejected or persecuted us. I know. My parents fled KGB scrutiny in the former Soviet Union because we were Christians. Those experiences stay with us. One of the reasons we like being in the U.S. is that this country reflects a functioning democracy. The impact on a stateless person when one cog in that wheel doesn't speak with another is outsized. ICE should adopt a policy memo on these issues so that other stateless people don’t have to suffer in similar uncertainty in the future.
Meanwhile, we wish Miliyon and his attorneys the best of luck in resolving his case satisfactorily. If you’d like to send him a message of support please get in touch and we will pass it along.
Karina Ambartsoumian Clough
Executive Director, United Stateless