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Statelessness and Immigration

Learn how being stateless can impact your U.S. immigration journey

What is Statelessness?

“Statelessness” refers to the condition of an individual who is not considered a citizen or national by any country or state. People can become stateless either at birth or later in life due to factors like discrimination, conflict, war, or changes in borders and laws. This complex issue can cause significant challenges when it comes to navigating your immigration journey and attempting to gain lawful status in the United States. 

In this guide, we’ll cover the basics of statelessness and what immigration implications you can expect as a stateless person living in the U.S.


Statelessness is a complex legal issue that may require additional support from an immigration attorney. Get a legal consultation with a Boundless-affiliated independent attorney today.

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How Does Statelessness Occur?

Statelessness can occur due to various political and legal circumstances, including:

  • Legal Issues: Some people may become stateless due to gaps or inconsistencies in nationality laws between countries. For example, if a child is born to parents who are citizens of different countries, and neither country grants nationality to the child, the child may be considered stateless. Laws that restrict the rights of women to pass on their nationality to their children may also cause stateless children. 
  • Discriminatory Laws: Discriminatory nationality laws that exclude certain groups or ethnicities from acquiring citizenship can lead to statelessness. In most cases, these nationality laws target specific minority populations.
  • Conflict and Displacement: Armed conflicts, persecution, territory changes, and forced displacement can result in individuals losing their nationality or being unable to establish their citizenship.
  • Government Action: In some instances of political conflict, governments may arbitrarily strip individuals of their nationality, rendering them stateless. 
  • Administrative Errors: Administrative errors, such as incorrect birth registration, lack of birth certificates, lost documentation, or destruction of official records can also contribute to statelessness when individuals are unable to prove their nationality.

Being Stateless in the U.S.

According to estimates from the UN Refugee Agency, there are approximately 218,000 stateless people or those at risk of statelessness residing in the U.S. 

Statelessness can have severe consequences for individuals. Stateless people often face a lack of access to basic rights and services, including education, healthcare, employment, and legal protection. They may also be vulnerable to exploitation and discrimination.

In the U.S., stateless individuals often encounter substantial difficulties when trying to obtain immigration benefits and other services from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) due to their lack of recognized nationality. They may struggle to obtain essential documents like birth certificates or passports. When a noncitizen lacks legal identification documents for themselves or their children, it can also lead to challenges in applying for immigration status or protection, as well as accessing employment, travel opportunities, and government services.

Recent Guidance for Stateless Immigrants in the U.S.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) recently issued updated guidance aimed at helping stateless people in their efforts to obtain immigration status or submit requests to USCIS.

Under the updated guidance, USCIS plans to:

-Implement new procedures to assist its officers in determining potential statelessness in individuals
-Create enhanced training materials related to statelessness, creating more comprehensive training protocols for officers
-Establish standardized operating procedures for officers to request an internal assessment of potential statelessness when it is relevant to an individual’s application or request for benefits

In the DHS press release, federal officials stated that this guidance should not only expand opportunities for stateless individuals but also offer them greater assurance regarding their citizenship status.

Frequently Asked Questions

It may be possible for a stateless person to apply for a green card, however not without significant challenges. A stateless person usually lacks the necessary documents to apply for and obtain legal permanent residency. 

USCIS requires specific documentation as part of the green card application process, including documents that prove identity and confirm an applicant’s foreign nationality. For stateless individuals who lack government-issued identification documents or citizenship status with any country, these requirements present significant challenges when seeking a green card.

Generally speaking, in order to apply for U.S. citizenship, you must be a green card holder (legal permanent resident) for a specific period of time, as well as meet certain eligibility requirements. If a stateless person is currently a green card holder and able to meet the eligibility requirements, they may be eligible for naturalization. You can read more about the requirements for naturalization in Boundless’ guide.

Deportation of a stateless person in the United States is a complex legal issue, and the outcome can depend on various factors. While statelessness itself is not a direct basis for deportation, the immigration status of a stateless person and the circumstances surrounding their case will play a significant role in determining whether they are subject to removal (deportation). If you have questions regarding statelessness and deportation, it may be helpful to speak with an immigration attorney. Ask My Attorney (AMA) is a subscription service that provides 30-minute consultations with Boundless-affiliated independent immigration attorneys. Learn more about Ask My Attorney.

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