A Son Left Behind

Tatianna Lesnikova, 65, USA

Photos/Videos: Videos and photos: Shaminder Dulai

Citizens of no-longer-existing countries like the Soviet Union or Yugoslavia are among the most common examples of stateless people today. Tatianna Lesnikova came to the United States from Ukraine hoping to find a better life and eventually send for her son. Now she fears she will die without seeing him again.

Every time she thinks of her son Danil, Tatianna Lesnikova weeps bitter tears. “I’ll never see him again,” the 65-year-old says at her home in Springfied, Massachusetts. “I will have to wait 100 years to see him again.”

There are at least 4,000 stateless people in the United States. In order to offer them relief, Congress would have to modify U.S. immigration law.

Twenty-two years ago, Lesnikova fled Ukraine to the United States convinced that officials there were preparing to commit her to a mental hospital for her anti-government views. They had already done so with her then 19-year-old son Danil.

But when she arrived in the United States with her younger son, 15-year-old David, American authorities immediately denied Lesnikova’s petition for asylum, arguing that her fears of oppression weren’t credible. In 2002, after her final appeal failed, they imprisoned her and David and attempted to deport them.

They couldn’t: David and Tatianna were stateless. Since both are ethnic Russians, Ukraine’s government decreed that they weren’t Ukrainians. Russia also denied them citizenship, saying they hadn’t proven their ties to the country.

After three months, officials released them from detention and into a world of legal limbo.

After marrying a US citizen and enduring a long legal battle, David managed to adjust his status and became a US citizen – a rare feat for a stateless person who the government has tried to deport. Danil escaped from Ukraine and settled into a quiet life as an orthodox Christian priest in Russia.

But Tatianna remains in a stateless limbo. She works as a certified nursing assistant only through a permit from the Department of Homeland Security that could be pulled at any time. She can’t leave the country even though she wants to – because she’s stateless, the government denies her a travel document. There’s likely no way for her to ever legalize her legal status. And she worries that officials could return to detain her arbitrarily at any time.

“I’m stuck here forever,” she says.

Lesnikova knows she’s lucky in a way. After all, she does have a work permit and manages to eke out an existence in health care and by teaching the occasional piano class to American students – in Ukraine and Russia, she was a master piano teacher. But she still dreams of Danil each night. He has been repeatedly denied visas to the United States. She dreams of one day holding him like she did when he was a little boy.

“I have battled for years to solve this problem, but I can’t,” she says. “I have lost all hope.”