December 9, 2014

Moises Mendoza MIA ’16 sat down with SIPA News to discuss the limbo facing stateless people in the United States, the upcoming launch of his new multimedia project on statelessness (including the website Stateless Voices), and his transition from a career in journalism to a career in the U.S. Foreign Service.

What did you do before coming to SIPA? What are you hoping to get out of your time here?

Before I came to SIPA I was a working journalist. I worked for two years at the Houston Chronicle in Texas and then I went abroad on a Fulbright to Germany. I started doing freelance work in Europe and decided I wanted to join the Foreign Service. So I’m here at SIPA making a career change to become a Foreign Service officer. I’m here on a Rangel Scholarship, so at the end of my two years I’ll be a Foreign Service officer.

My concentration is Human Rights [and Humanitarian Affairs] and I’m hoping to gain a deeper understanding of human rights issues involving things like statelessness and other similar issues. I hope when I’m with the State Department that I’ll work on things in that capacity. So this statelessness project I’m working on now is my last big journalism project before I make a career change.

How did your interest in statelessness develop?

I’ve always been really interested in statelessness; specifically there was a story in 2012 that I worked on and wrote about that really interested me. There was a stateless man living in the United States and he took a vacation to American Samoa, the little territory in the South Pacific. Because of his stateless status, when he tried to return to the United States, the U.S. government said he had deported himself to American Samoa and he would be permanently stuck there. So I wrote about him for Global Post, and it became a big deal. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and various other groups got involved and he was eventually allowed to come back to the United States on humanitarian parole. He was born in Azerbaijan and came to the U.S. in the 1990s. He applied for asylum but then his case was rejected and he became stuck here, which is what often happens with stateless people. Again, it’s complicated—but basically U.S. immigration law does not recognize statelessness as a concept and so if you come here and your asylum case is rejected and the U.S. government doesn’t have anywhere to deport you to, then you are permanently stuck here and weird things can happen.

What is your statelessness project all about and when is it launching?

Earlier this year I applied for some grants from the International Center for Journalists and the Fund for Investigative Journalism and worked with some partners on statelessness in the EU and the U.S.. Nobody is talking about it, but some of the biggest issues with statelessness are actually happening in the U.S. and the EU. And very few people think it’s an issue for the west. So we are placing stories in the U.S. and international media. We just had a series in a newspaper in Germany, we had a piece in Global Post, and we’ll have a piece in Newsweek in a few weeks. We have a beta version of the multimedia website, Stateless Voices, up now. Over the next few months we are going to have stories and a few videos online. We’ll be adding more stories to it and we hope to go on as long as this is of interest to people. There’s one gentleman here in New York who works for Newsweek who is my partner on this and we have two people in Germany that are doing the European side of things.

You recently put on an event at SIPA on statelessness.

The event, which launched the project, involved people from UNHCR, the Open Society Justice initiative, and two of our stateless people who live here in New York. So the point was to tell people in the SIPA community and the larger New York community about this unknown subject. The event was in a lot of ways groundbreaking because, again, no one is talking about statelessness in the west. If it’s brought up, it’s usually about the Rohingya in Myanmar and people in the developing world. A lot of people came, there were about 100 people at the event, so there’s obviously interest in the community.

I hope that the project can be integrated into bigger academic pursuits. That’s really my goal with this whole thing – to make this bigger than one project and start doing substantive research on statelessness especially in the United States. It’s almost a totally untouched topic and I think it’s ripe for a lot of academic research and discourse.