In many ways, my wife and I are the classic Philly couple. I grew up in Wilmington, Delaware. My wife grew up in Delco. Both of us always wanted to live in Philadelphia and we’ve made the city our home.
We met on OK Cupid back in 2008, and the rest is history.
I collect vinyl records. I’m a tech guy. My wife, Karina, was involved in starting the farmer’s market in Old City, now known as the Farmers Market at Christ Church. We’re about to celebrate our 10th wedding anniversary. We like to go to Jaxx Steaks Taproom, sip a Peroni, and watch the Eagles games. I get a provolone with onions. My wife gets the chicken cutlet sandwich with broccoli rabe and provolone. Our favorite Italian restaurant is L’Angolo on Porter Street.
Like I said, we’re quintessentially Philly.
There’s just one issue that sets us far apart from your typical Philadelphian couple. On our first date, my wife told me she is stateless — no country will offer her citizenship, so she has none.
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She came to the United States from what is now Ukraine when she was 8 years old, after her parents fled the destruction of the former Soviet Union. She can’t go back to Russia. She can’t go back to Ukraine. Neither country will acknowledge she’s a citizen. But she also was not eligible for citizenship in the United States, even though we’re about to celebrate a decade of loving marriage. It’s because her family entered the country without inspection to seek asylum, making them so-called “illegal” immigrants. She has lived since 2012 with Delayed Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status, a temporary reprieve from deportation.
Being stateless is contrary to the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Every person has a right to a nationality, it says. Not having that right throws up a bunch of everyday challenges for both of us.
For a start, we wanted to get married at Philadelphia’s City Hall, but we ended up having to get married in Maryland because they didn’t require state identification like a driver’s license, which, before DACA, my wife couldn’t get in Pennsylvania. She could use her college ID and birth certificate in Maryland. Recently, I was the best man at my friend’s wedding in Bulgaria. I flew there to give the speech but my wife couldn’t be in the audience to support me. She doesn’t have a passport, so she can’t leave the U.S., and it was such a shame she couldn’t be there with us all to celebrate.
For years, I’ve worried that she’ll be deported or detained — many stateless people end up stuck in detention for a long time because there’s no country to deport them to. Yes, DACA offers protection, but it’s also a political lightning rod, so it could easily be taken away in the near future.
Getting health care is also a real challenge if you’re stateless — and was a big concern for us, because my wife is a type 1 diabetic. Thankfully, our marriage certificate in Maryland qualified my wife to enroll into health care under my employer, but other stateless people are less fortunate. My wife and I both pay taxes, but I’m concerned that when it comes time to draw on Social Security, she won’t be able to. We’re both in our mid-thirties and people often ask us if we’re thinking about having a child. We tell them we are unwilling to bring a child into this predicament, with Karina’s uncertain legal status in this country. There are still far too many immigration detention facilities in the state. Frankly it is unthinkable to think of Karina being detained while she was pregnant — however unlikely it may be since DACA, it’s still a real fear. Her statelessness means that a regular aspect of life for other people is put on hold for us.
We are unwilling to bring a child into this predicament.
There are an estimated 218,000 stateless people in the U.S. and they, too, are stuck in this kind of legal limbo. Many can’t work legally. Some end up in immigration detention, stuck there for years as they do not have a homeland they can be deported to. For stateless people in this country to practice their human right to a nationality, Congress would need to pass specific legislation.
Fortunately, two members of Congress, both Maryland Democrats, have just introduced a bill that might fix things for stateless people in the U.S.
Senator Ben Cardin and Representative Jamie Raskin’s “Stateless Protection Act” will resolve the status of stateless persons in the U.S. It could change thousands of lives, including ours. The bill, if passed into law, will give people like my American-raised wife a legal pathway to citizenship. With this status, I won’t be scared every day of her being detained, and we will be able to get on with our lives in the country Karina has long called home.
Kevin Clough lives with his wife Karina Ambartsoumian-Clough in Philadelphia. She is the executive director of United Stateless, which advocates for stateless residents in the U.S.