Instead of a five-day holiday to the lush, tropical US territory in the South Pacific, the 39-year-old has spent more than nine brutal months there caught in an immigration law hell. Experts agree it’s an unprecedented illustration of America’s broken immigration system.
The key sticking point: Though he’s lived legally in Houston and the Los Angeles area for years under a special arrangement with the Department of Homeland Security, Sebastian is stateless, with no citizenship at all. The federal government argues that during his vacation he “self-deported” from the United States — despite the fact that American Samoa is a US territory.
Now the part-time travel agent and barista is stuck on the 76-square-mile island as federal and local officials hash out what to do with him. Though the local government is putting him up with a local family and giving him a $50 weekly allowance, Sebastian can’t work under American Samoan laws and can’t travel off the island.
Most days, he can be found at the local McDonald’s using an internet connection to post online appeals, while drawing the sympathy of doting locals, who have been circulating petitions to get him back home. He’s living a sweaty Pacific island version of “The Terminal,” the movie in which Tom Hanks plays a traveler who loses his citizenship and is stuck in an airport.
“It’s horrible here, it’s hot it’s making me sick, I can’t stand it anymore” Sebastian told GlobalPost over Skype recently. “I just want to go home.”
Charity Tooze, a spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) office in the United States, which is advocating for Sebastian, said: “There’s a big gap in the legal structure of the United States when it comes to stateless people, and Mikhail has fallen right through it.”
To understand Sebastian’s case, one has to grasp the problem of statelessness in America.
At least 4,000 people in the United States don’t have citizenship in any country, through no fault of their own, according to UNHCR.
In some cases, countries use nationality as a political tool, stripping people of their citizenship when they’re abroad. Other times states simply cease to exist, and no one will recognize their former citizens.
That’s what happened in Sebastian’s case, which is no simple matter. He is an ethnic Armenian born in what is today Azerbaijan, but when the Soviet Union broke up, Azerbaijan refused to issue him a passport because, he claims, of his Armenian background.
But Sebastian adds that he has been unable to convince Armenian authorities to grant him a passport either. The explanation, he says, is that Armenia isn't convinced of his ethnicity and won't grant him citizenship under its laws.
The US immigration system can offer stateless people a path to legal residency and possible citizenship if an asylum claim is accepted.
But often, as in the case of Sebastian, stateless people end up in a legal twilight zone of sorts. His asylum application was rejected in 1996, the year after he came to the US on a business visa in his USSR passport and decided he wanted to stay in the country.
After a judge ruled in 2002 that he should be deported, Sebastian was jailed for six months. But since no country would accept him, officials released Sebastian with a work permit and the stipulation that he regularly check in with immigration authorities, records show.
“People like this find themselves in a very precarious position, where there aren’t really any remedies for them at all,” said Maureen Lynch, an expert on statelessness affiliated with the International Observatory on Statelessness in the United Kingdom.