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Meet Mikhail Sebastian, whose trip to Samoa is like a real-life Tom Hanks’ ‘The Terminal.’
More than 70 countries have signed on to two international conventions that bind them to provide a way for the stateless to regularize their legal status.
But the United States never has.
And though lawmakers have introduced legislation in the past to offer a pathway to immigration regularization, it has failed each time.
Seeing the world
Because he can’t travel outside the United States, Sebastian says he’s been visiting the most exotic American destinations he can find — Guam, Puerto Rico and Hawaii, among others. To facilitate his travels, he has a so-called “World Passport” from the World Service Authority, which David Gallup, the group's president, describes as a global-governmental organization. A World Passport is a document that’s supposed to confer world citizenship; it can be issued to anyone, other than criminals, terrorists and citizens of certain countries, like Cuba and Iran, Gallup says.
Last December, Sebastian decided, the South Pacific was next on his list. He says he checked with US immigration authorities and was told that visiting American Samoa wouldn't cause him any problems. The American Samoans sent him an authorization to travel with the World Passport — because of American Samoa’s unusual relationship to the United States, everyone traveling there and back passes through customs.
Here’s the chain of events no one disputes: After visiting American Samoa, Sebastian took a side trip to the neighboring independent country of Samoa before crossing back into the US territory. When he tried to board a plane on the way back to the mainland, airline officials called US immigration authorities. They decreed that a World Passport wasn’t a valid travel document and he couldn’t board the flight back.
That doesn’t make sense to American Samoan officials, who wonder how Sebastian can be considered deported from the United States if he is now on American territory.
In a written statement to GlobalPost the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency wrote that Sebastian had, in effect, self-deported himself: “In 2002, an immigration judge with the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) ordered Sebastian to depart the United States. At that time, he was not in ICE custody as the agency had deferred action on his removal. In the meantime, he had been granted employment authorization. In December 2011 when Mr. Sebastian traveled to American Samoa and Samoa, he was prohibited from returning to the United States due to the immigration judge’s order.”
On the island, authorities have been appealing to the highest levels of the federal government. The territory’s governor, congressional delegate and the local Office of the Attorney General have all begged the US to take Sebastian back.
And a thick web of pro-bono immigration attorneys and UNCHR have taken up Sebastian’s case.
But Homeland Security won’t give in and Sebastian’s supporters worry that he could be stuck forever. If that happens, American Samoa would have to change its laws to allow Sebastian to work or own land, officials say.
“As a US territory we can’t tell the US what to do. And we don’t have the same influence a state does,” said Vincent Kruse, a lawyer with American Samoa’s Attorney General who has been working on Sebastian’s case. “It’s definitely very frustrating because we just want to help Mikhail go home but we’re starting to think about the possibility that he may be here for the long run.”
In August Eni F.H. Faleomavaega, American Samoa’s delegate to the US House of Representatives, appealed directly to Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano in a letter, calling the situation “unprecedented.”
“There are no pre-existing cases that would provide a better understanding in addressing his situation,” Faleomavaega wrote, asking her to resolve the situation.
But in a Sept. 13 letter, the Department of Homeland Security rejected that appeal, prompting strong words from Faleomavaega as he once more demanded Napolitano’s personal intervention.
"It is clear to me that the US Department of Homeland security has no sense of compassion for Mr. Sebastian," he wrote Napolitano last week, citing Sebastian's "extreme" living conditions and calling his treatment by federal authorities "inexcusable."
Sebastian just wants to get back to California to reopen his asylum case — records show federal officials had previously approved its reopening but rescinded the offer after they realized he was stuck in the South Pacific.
Back in McDonald’s, Sebastian says he isn’t reveling in his mini-celebrity on the island of just 55,000 people. He’s feeling powerless and at his lowest points has even contemplated suicide.
“This whole situation is like a hell for me,” he said.
Follow Moises Mendoza on Twitter @moisesdmendoza