People of Northwest Public Radio
Sat December 29, 2012
In Limbo: Stateless Man Stuck On American Samoa
Originally published on Sun December 30, 2012 4:42 am
Last December, Mikhail Sebastian decided to take a New Year's trip to American Samoa, but when he tried to board his flight to return home to Los Angeles, he was barred. U.S. immigration officials said he had self-deported.
Weekends on All Things Considered talked with Sebastian, stateless and stranded, this fall. Born in the former Soviet Union bloc, he escaped and made his way to the U.S., where he had been living and working for 16 years. He had a work permit, but as a stateless person, he was not allowed to travel outside the U.S. He had no problems visiting the territories of Guam and Puerto Rico, but found American Samoa had its own immigration rules.
We caught up with him recently to find out if anything had changed. It hadn't. He's still living in limbo on the island.
"Since the first interview we had back in October, I am so thankful to NPR," he told us by phone from the home of a family that is putting him up. Local law prevents Sebastian from working, so the American Samoan government is paying the family to house him.
"I got a lot of emails and tweets from people who really cared about the situation," he said, "who are on my side."
Despite the positive response, Sebastian is still stuck and he's marking a bitter anniversary on the island.
"It's frustrating because I didn't expect it's going to take a whole year," Sebastian said. "I want to just get out of here. I just want to go back home."
A lawyer is working his case, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has gotten involved. The UNHCR recently traveled to the island to make a video about Sebastian's plight.
U.S. immigration officials have so far shown no indication of reversing their decision and letting him return.
Still, while 2012 was a bad year, Sebastian says he is looking ahead.
"I hope that 2013 will bring me a lot of hope and a lot of changes can be done in our broken immigration system," he said.
There are an estimated 12 million stateless people in the world; an unknown number living in the U.S., according to the UNHCR. Sebastian says if he ever gets back home, he will work to promote the rights of these "citizens of nowhere."
JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
Now, from the journal of stories of the year past, come with us to American Samoa. Mikhail Sebastian is a man without a country, stateless and stranded on that South Pacific island. And he's a lot more eager to get off than Robinson Crusoe ever was. We first encountered Sebastian in October. Born in the former Soviet bloc, he escaped and made his way to the United States, living and working here for 16 years. A condition tied to his residency is that he cannot leave. So Sebastian travels to the farthest fringes of U.S. territory: Guam, Puerto Rico - you get the idea.
But he hit the end of the line in American Samoa. When he tried to get home to L.A., he was blocked. He found out that American Samoa has its own rules, and paradise has turned to limbo. He can't even work there, so the American Samoa government is paying a local family to put him up. We caught up with him at their home.
MIKHAIL SEBASTIAN: Since the first interview we had back in October, I'm so thankful to NPR. I got a lot of emails and tweets from people who really cared about the situation, who were over on my side.
LYDEN: Nevertheless, U.S. Immigration has shown no sign of relenting, and today marks one year precisely that Sebastian has been stranded on the island.
SEBASTIAN: First of all, it's hard. It's frustrating because I did not expect it's going to take a whole year. And the only thing I just want to say, that I want to just get out of here. I just want to go back home.
LYDEN: Staff from the office of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees recently traveled to the island to make a video about Mikhail Sebastian's plight.
(SOUNDBITE OF UNHCR VIDEO)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Nothing like this has ever happened in American Samoa. I'm fairly confident of that because American Samoa has no idea what to do with Mikhail.
LYDEN: That's Sebastian's lawyer. But so far, no agency that could do something about this has budged, so Mikhail Sebastian kind of lives in his head.
SEBASTIAN: 2012 was a bad year. And I hope that 2013 will bring me a lot of hope and then a lot of chances can be done in our broken immigration system.
LYDEN: The UNHCR estimates there are 12 million stateless people throughout the world. Mikhail Sebastian says if he ever gets back to the United States, he'll work to promote the rights of these citizens of nowhere. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.