The Jourbinas went underground when they realized there was no way for them to gain legal status. One day immigration officers arrived to try to deport the family. All four have been fighting for recognition from the U.S. government ever since.
Natalia Jourbina thought the Facebook update from her little sister at her nearby Bronx apartment was a joke: “Arrested,” it said.
It wasn’t. Before long, immigration authorities had arrived at Jourbina’s Bronx apartment too. They slapped on handcuffs and led her to a waiting car, where her mom and dad – Tatiana and Boris – and her sister Polina were already shackled.
It was October 23, 2009. Since then, the members of the Jourbina family have been involved in a one-of-a-kind legal fight, trying to get the government to recognize their unique status as vulnerable stateless people. But they fear they could forever be in legal limbo.
The family came to the United States in the early 1990s on Soviet passports, fleeing what Boris, 66, Tatiana, 51, Natalia, 31 and Polina, 25 say was discrimination against ethnic Russians in Kazakhstan and threats of death. But immigration officials said they didn’t meet the high standard of persecution necessary to gain asylum. Their petition was rejected and the Jourbinas couldn’t renew their Soviet passports to leave the country.
So like many stateless people in the United States, the Journbinas simply went underground. Polina continued with her education and went to college. Natalia became a manager at a local clothing shop.
Then in 2009, the immigration authorities arrived. Officials have since tried to deport the family to Kazakhstan and Russia, but failed. The Russian government says the Chechnyan birth records of Boris, 66, and Tatiana 51, were destroyed in armed conflict, meaning there is no proof of their Russian citizenship. The Kazakh government says that because the Jourbinas never registered with the Kazakh consulate in the United States, the entire family has been stripped of its citizenship.
That leaves all four stateless. Although not being held in immigration detention, they are forced to constantly check in with immigration officials and are given a discretionary work permit. Like most stateless people in this situation, because they can’t get travel documents they also can’t leave the United States. “It’s like we don’t exist,” says Polina. “We are just nothing in the system. Nobody even sees us as real people.”
Last year pro-bono lawyers from Catholic Charities managed to reopen the asylum case in federal court after arguing that judges previously followed incorrect procedure. They think this is a groundbreaking case that could open the way for other stateless people to gain asylum. But it could take years before the situation is decided. In the meantime the family lives in limbo.
Natalia is hoping to get permanent residency and eventually citizenship. But although she’s been married to an American citizen since 2007, that isn’t simple either. Officials say she must leave the country and re-enter it to be considered, because she previously failed to follow the deportation order.
“How am I supposed to do that?” she asks. “I can’t even get a travel document.” Says her mother, Tatiana: “I see no future for us. I see this continuing forever.”