(CNN)The United States is committing for the first time to defining “statelessness” and increasing protections for stateless people in the US, the Department of Homeland Security announced Wednesday.
A stateless person is someone who does not have the nationality of any country, according to the United Nations, but the US doesn’t have its own definition, making it difficult for the federal government to understand the needs of this population.
For instance, in the US, stateless people might lack identity documents, according to DHS.
The department believes making changes will help stateless people get better access to legal immigration status and benefits.
Typically, people around the world who are stateless have challenges including an inability to get jobs or government services and difficulty getting travel documents, a DHS official told CNN.
DHS, which is responsible for managing the US legal immigration system, will also increase the data available on stateless people in the country.
The move could impact hundreds of thousands of people in the US.
According to a study by the Center for Migration Studies of New York, roughly 218,000 US residents are potentially stateless or potentially at risk of statelessness. These groups live in all 50 states, with the largest populations in California (20,600), New York (18,500) and Texas (15,200), the group found.
Stateless people may have arrived in the US as refugees, temporary visa holders or through irregular channels, according to the study, released in 2020.
Donald Kerwin, executive director of the Center for Migration Studies and the lead author of the study, welcomed the DHS announcement.
He called the move “long overdue” and advocated that the US also become a party to the 1954 and 1961 United Nations Conventions on statelessness.
“This population is long overdue for some kind of path to status,” he said, adding that in the course of the study they found that no federal agency had reliable information on stateless persons in the US.
There are populations all over the world at risk of statelessness. For example, some Kurds from Iraq, Iran, Syria and Lebanon might be stateless and children of Syrian refugees at risk of statelessness, because several destination countries do not grant birthright citizenship.
In Myanmar, the Rohingya ethnic minority face statelessness.
“Your life is severely constricted, by virtue of the fact that you don’t have a state, you don’t have a country,” the official said.
There are no comprehensive government statistics on the number of stateless people in the US or the number who have applied for immigration benefits, which is part of the reason to create a definition, according to DHS.
“We are doing something historic, that’s a major step toward protecting a significant number of people,” the official said, adding that this was a priority of the Biden administration.
Asked why this is happening now as opposed to previous administrations, the official said that despite its magnitude, the issue has had to compete with other immigration priorities.
“DHS is committed to pursuing initiatives to enhance recognition of, and protections for, vulnerable populations, including stateless individuals within the United States,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a statement Wednesday.
This story has been updated with reaction to the announcement.