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Immigrant Rights Clinic Wins Asylum for Nation’s ‘Most Famous Stateless Person’

After 15 years in legal limbo, Mikhail Sebastian, sometimes referred to as the ‘most famous stateless person in the U.S.,’ has been granted asylum thanks to the efforts of Washington and Lee law students and the Immigrant Rights Clinic.

Sebastian’s saga begins in the Soviet republic of Azerbaijan. An ethnic Armenian, Sebastian was forced to flee when the USSR began to crumble. Armenia was overwhelmed with refugees and would not take him. He then traveled to Turkmenistan, but Sebastian, who is gay, could not remain there because homosexuality is illegal in that country. Finally, he sought asylum in the U.S.

The U.S. rejected his asylum claim and ordered him removed, but because he is stateless – not a national under the laws of any country – none would take him. After months in detention, immigration officials recognized that the breakup of the Soviet Union meant that Sebastian held no citizenship, and released him on “immigration parole.” He got a job as a barista and started to build a life here even while his status remained unresolved.

Things took a strange turn in 2011, however, when Sebastian vacationed in America Samoa, a U.S. territory. Unbeknownst to him, he also visited the independent country of Samoa, at which point immigration officials decreed that Sebastian had “self-deported” and permanently barred him from reentering the mainland U.S.

Sebastian had been marooned in America Samoa for nearly a year when Prof. David Baluarte, director of the W&L Law’s Immigrant Rights Clinic, became involved in the case. Baluarte had recently completed a comprehensive report on statelessness in the U.S for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, a version of which was later published under the title “Citizens of Nowhere,” and was asked by the UN to provide pro bono counsel. Baluarte says that stateless individuals, who lack any lawful status, access to rights or protections, are highly vulnerable to discrimination and abuse. But even among the stateless, Sebastian’s case was unusual and unique.

“While American Samoa is a U.S. territory, our immigration laws do not extend there,” says Baluarte. “Because Mikhail was believed to have executed his removal order when he traveled to Western Samoa, and he would need to cross the Pacific to return to his home in Los Angeles, immigration officials had the power to keep him cordoned off in that section of our national territory.”

Baluarte, working with the UNHCR and the Jewish Family Service in California, eventually was able to get Sebastian a humanitarian parole, allowing him to return to the U.S. mainland. An unintended benefit of this situation was that Sebastian’s immigration process started over, giving him another chance to argue his case for asylum.

By this time, Baluarte had joined W&L, and he assigned Sebastian’s case to Michael Keller ’14L and Meagan Peterson ’14L. The students conducted extensive research and developed new legal arguments to support the asylum claim, this time focusing Sebastian’s sexual orientation and the consequences of returning him per immigration policy to his country of last residence, Turkmenistan.

“We know enough about Turkmenistan’s view of homosexuality that this would have been in effect a death sentence for Mikhail,” says Baluarte.

The students and Baluarte traveled to Los Angeles last spring to represent Sebastian at an interview with an asylum officer. So unusual was the situation that a decision normally taking two weeks dragged on for almost 8 months as Sebastian’s case was reviewed by higher and higher levels within the U.S. immigration enforcement offices.

Finally, just in time for Thanksgiving, Sebastian learned that he been granted asylum after 15 years of stateless legal limbo, putting him on the path to getting a green card and eventually U.S. citizenship.

“I called Mikhail as soon as I received the news, and we celebrated together,” says Baluarte. “Mikhail had spent so many years as a stateless person that the idea that his struggle was over and that he could finally call the U.S. his home was overwhelming.”

Sebastian’s story of being stateless remains one of the most notorious and unusual, but Baluarte’s research has shown that he is not alone. There are likely thousands of stateless people in the U.S., living under constant threat of detention and with no real established avenue to legal status.

Baluarte, together with other advocates for the rights of stateless persons, worked hard to ensure that the U.S. Congress would include a legislative solution to statelessness as part of the comprehensive immigration reform initiative in 2013. With the future of immigration reform uncertain, stateless persons who are not so fortunate as Mikhail continue to languish in legal limbo. Baluarte continues to help individual clients, and to research and write about the problem.

“The way that we have written our laws to exclude stateless persons is simply inhumane. We have identified a gap in our laws that produces real human suffering and that urgently needs to be addressed,” Baluarte says.