Immigration Bill Amendment Aims to Win Residency Rights for Climate Change Refugees

Hawaii senator pitches amendment allowing DHS secretary discretion to declare people 'stateless.'

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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton smiles during an arrival ceremony at Rarotonga International Airpoirt in Rarotonga, Cook Islands, Aug. 30, 2012.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton smiles during an arrival ceremony at Rarotonga International Airpoirt in Rarotonga, Cook Islands, Aug. 30, 2012.

Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, introduced an amendment Wednesday to the pending immigration bill that aims to allow Pacific islanders and others affected by climate change to reside legally in the United States.

"It simply recognizes that climate change, like war, is one of the most significant contributors to homelessness in the world," Schatz said, according to Think Progress.

If enacted as law, the amendment would allow non-U.S. citizens to seek recognition as "stateless persons," allowing them possible legal residency in the U.S.

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"This amendment to the immigration bill gives the Secretary of Homeland Security the discretion, but not an obligation, to take into account situations in which a person cannot return to their country because it's uninhabitable due to climate change," a Schatz spokesperson told U.S. News in an email.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton smiles during an arrival ceremony at Rarotonga International Airpoirt in Rarotonga, Cook Islands, Aug. 30, 2012.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton smiles during an arrival ceremony at Rarotonga International Airpoirt in Rarotonga, Cook Islands, Aug. 30, 2012.

"This is not an abstract issue. Hawai'i has had a long, close and enduring relationship with its island neighbors in the Pacific for which climate change is an imminent threat. For Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, the Cook Islands and others, rising seas threaten the very existence of these countries," said the spokesperson. The amendment's language does not specify these nationalities.

According to Refugees International, there are currently 4,000 people without citizenship from any country living in the United States. "Statelessness is not a recognized condition under U.S. immigration law, so it is nearly impossible for people without nationality to obtain residency, asylum, or citizenship in the United States," the group said in a May post.

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The current Senate immigration bill would grant conditional legal status to "stateless" people, and they would ultimately be able to apply for permanent residency and citizenship.

Schatz's amendment say the DHS secretary "in consultation with the Secretary of State, may designate, as stateless persons, any specific group of individuals who are no longer considered nationals by any state as a result of sea level rise or other environmental changes that render such state uninhabitable for such group of individuals."

The amendment would also instruct the comptroller general to "carry out a study on the effects of climate change-induced migration on United States immigration policies" and "climate change-induced internal migration of residents of Alaska, Hawaii, and other States" within 18 months of the bill becoming law.

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