Vacation Gone Wrong

Mikhail Sebastian, 40, USA

Photos/Videos: Shaminder Dulai

A brief trip to a South Pacific island and a weird quirk in U.S. immigration nearly left Mikhail Sebastian stuck forever.

Mikhail Sebastian takes a deep breath in his tiny Los Angeles apartment before he starts to tell his story: “It was only supposed to be a vacation,” he begins haltingly. “But it turned into a lost year of my life.” Sebastian takes another breath before continuing with his story. He frowns and shakes his head. This is painful for him: “I worry every day that I’ll one day be back in that situation again. It’s my worst nightmare.”

Every time Sebastian explains how was nearly permanently stuck on a tiny South Pacific tropical island because of a weird quirk in U.S. immigration between 2012 and 2013, the feelings flow back, he says. The fear. The isolation. The helplessness. “I tell my story because I don’t want this to happen to anyone else,” Sebastian says. “I want this problem to be fixed.”

Because Sebastian’s story has created a minor political firestorm in the United States, he is perhaps the best known person in the United States’ tiny community of stateless people – people with no citizenship whatsoever.

Sebastian’s story starts out as a typical one in the strange world of stateless people in the United States. Originally born in the Soviet republic of Azerbaijan, but of Armenian ethnicity, he came to the Houston, Texas in 1995 on a still-valid Soviet passport as an assistant to a businessman. But because, he says, he faced oppression for being gay back home, Sebastian decided to stay in the United States and apply for asylum. His application was rejected by immigration authorities.

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.

“They said I didn’t have a convincing enough fear of persecution,” Sebastian recalls. But there was no way for him to return to Azerbaijan. His U.S.S.R. passport had no expired and when Sebastian asked the embassy of Azerbaijan, he was rebuffed without explanation – he believes it is because of his Armenian background. Then Armenia turned him down as did the Russian embassy. U.S. officials arrested Sebastian and tried to deport him. But when they realized no country would accept him, he was released. Sebastian was stateless.

Like many stateless people in his situation, Sebastian was given a work permit and told to check in with immigration authorities periodically. That’s what he did for years as he worked as a travel agent and then a coffee barista in Los Angeles.

But then in 2011 he decided to take a tropical vacation to the island paradise of American Samoa. That was where his story became positively bizarre. “It makes me so sad to remember it,” Sebastian says. “Just thinking about it gives me nightmares.”

Sebastian vacationed around the island of about 50,000 people, laying on the beach, visiting tropical jungles and, despite not having a valid passport, even taking a jaunt to the neighboring independent country of Samoa. But when he arrived at the local airport for his Hawaiian Airlines flight back to Los Angeles, officials stopped him.

“You’ve deported yourself off the mainland,” Sebastian recalls being told. Because of American Samoa’s unique relationship to the United States – it runs its own immigration system – Sebastian was told that he was stuck.

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To get to work each day Mikhail Sebastian rides the bus for just shy of two hours, from his sparse apartment along a busy street in Hollywood to a swanky beach side cafe. As a stateless person jobs are scarce, as his work permit scares away potential employers.

For the next few months, local officials tried to figure out what to do with him. Because Sebastian didn’t have a local work permit, he couldn’t get a job. And because he couldn’t work, Sebastian ran out of money and couldn’t pay for a hotel. So officials put him with a local family and gave him an allowance of about $50 per week. Sebastian lost his coffee barista job in Los Angeles. His landlord revoked the lease on his apartment.

The American Samoan Congressional delegation became involved, writing angry letters to the United States’ Department of Homeland Security demanding that Sebastian be let back to Los Angeles. Authorities wouldn’t budge. Then the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and one of the top statelessness attorneys in the country took on Sebastian’s case. Even officials at Hope College in Michigan advocated for Sebastian.

Officials refused to listen. It looked like Sebastian might really be permanently stuck on American Samoa and he was getting desperate. Most days he could be found at the local McDonalds sending emails to government officials begging them to help him. Usually he received no response. “I’m contemplating suicide every day,” Sebastian told a reporter in mid-2012, describing how the tropical heat made him sick. “I just want to go back to my friends. I want to go back to what I know. I want to have a life.”

Said Vincent Kruse, an attorney with the American Samoan Attorney General’s Office in 2012: “We’re getting used to the idea that Mikhail might be with us for a very long time.” Sebastian remembers being terrified that he would never get off the tiny island – he saw no way to get off. “I might have been stuck in the United States too, but at least I can travel around a bit,” he recalls. “Imagine being marooned on an island like I was. It turns from paradise to horror when you realize you are basically imprisoned on what becomes a jail for you.”

After months of publicity and increasingly angry protests by U.S.-based human rights activists, in February 2012, the Department of Homeland Security gave Sebastian a special “humanitarian parole” to come back to the United States. But it has been a difficult readjustment for Sebastian. Authorities have allowed him to reapply for asylum, but they’ve refused to grant him a work permit, forcing Sebastian to work illegally.

For more than a year advocates for Mikhail Sebastian battled with the U.S. government to get him back to the United States. Download a selection of letters from government officials outlining his case.
For more than a year advocates for Mikhail Sebastian battled with the U.S. government to get him back to the United States. These are a selection of letters from the American Samoan delegate to Congress, the Department of Homeland Security and the American Samoan Attorney General outlining his case.

Most days he can be found working at a Los Angeles-area coffee shop where the owner has taken pity on him and lets him work under the table. But Sebastian has grown from frustrated about his situation to sad and then to angry. He may not be stuck on a stifling island, but he is still stuck in the United States with no way to leave. Sebastian wants to help other stateless people and has even become an activist of sorts. He wants to get legal residency and one day citizenship. Or he wants to go to some country, anywhere that will accept him, that will finally tell him that he belongs.

“I don’t want this to happen to anyone else,” he says. “But it will, unless I do something.” Last year he began writing about his situation, even getting published in the Washington Post, one of the country’s most prestigious newspapers. But still nothing has changed for Sebastian. He remains a man without a country – and a man with no way to leave the country.

Change can’t come soon enough for Sebastian, who insists that he won’t ever give up fighting for himself or the rights of stateless people. When he goes to work he’s always watching for immigration officials. Although he’s technically not an illegal immigrant, Sebastian knows he’s not in the United States legally either. He’s a man in limbo, a sort of blank nothingness. An officer can show up at his workplace at any time to put him in immigration detention again.

After work each day Sebastian calls the immigration office to check on the status of his asylum case. Just like his own life, the case is in limbo. He calls every day but there’s never any news. “Try back tomorrow,” an immigration official tells Sebastian over the phone. “Maybe something will change by then.”

Update: In November 2014, after this story was published, Sebastian was granted asylum, finally giving him a pathway to legal U.S. status.