Citizen of Nowhere
The Walrus|November 2021
Deepan Budlakoti was Canadian one day, stateless the next. Who is responsible for someone no country wants to claim?
ADNAN KHAN

DEEPAN BUDLAKOTI’S immigration troubles began with a brawl.

In 2009, he was living in the Ottawa- Carleton Detention Centre, serving a four-month sentence for breaking and entering. One day, after Budlakoti had been tossed into solitary confinement for fighting with other inmates, a corrections officer asked about his citizenship. On its face, the question wasn’t strange: the center is often tasked by the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) with sorting through immigration detainees.

Budlakoti answered that he was Canadian. Born in Ottawa on October 17, 1989, he grew up in the city. His parents moved from India four years before his birth, brought on as cooks and cleaners for the Indian High Commission (THC). He was thus Canadian by right of jus soli, or “law of the soil,” according to which any child born within a country automatically becomes a citizen of that nation — a principle Canada adheres to.

Citizenship by birth, however, doesn’t apply to the children of diplomatic staff. The officer flagged Budlakoti’s case for review. In May 2010, immigration officials decided there had been a mistake. The Citizenship Act was clear: because employees of foreign governments aren’t subject to the laws of the country they work in, they aren’t entitled to jus soli provisions. Budlakoti was not and had never been, a citizen. He was stunned. Canada was the only country he’d ever known. His parents were Canadian; his younger brother was Canadian. He had a birth certificate and, over the course of his life, had been issued two passports. If he wasn’t Canadian, what was he?

At twenty-one, Budlakoti suddenly found himself reclassified as a permanent resident — a status that came with risk. A criminal record could have him thrown out of Canada, and later that year, while he was out on parole, his crimes grew more brazen. He was arrested for drug and weapons trafficking and sentenced to three years in jail. Budlakoti’s case was sent to the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB), now tasked with deciding whether to deport him. He fought back. In a bid to reverse his permanent resident status, Budlakoti’s legal team provided evidence that his parents had quit the IHC in the summer of 1989, months before he was born. The former high commissioner confirmed it. An Ottawa- area doctor also verified that Budlakoti’s parents had begun working for him that summer.

The government produced its own documents. They showed not only that Budlakoti’s father and mother had been employed by the IHC in December 1989 but that his parents’ diplomatic status had only been officially revoked in January 1990, two and a half months after Budlakoti’s birth. Watching all this unfold, Budlakoti felt himself come apart. For every affidavit that supported him, something else undermined his claims.

At the December 2011 hearing, the IRB sided with the government and, because of the “serious criminality” of Budlakoti’s conduct, ordered him removed from the country. After completing his firearms sentence, in December 2012, he was transferred to the CBsa, now responsible for carrying out the deportation order.

That order turned out to be toothless. There was nowhere for Budlakoti to go. He no longer had travel documents and had no permission to enter any other country. India refused to take him. It had no reason to. Budlakoti was never an Indian citizen, nor did he have special grounds to become one. He had no connection to the country and barely spoke Hindi. He had lost his eligibility for Indian citizenship when his parents, deciding to make their home in Canada, opted against registering him with India. Budlakoti had become, in effect, stateless.

By April 2013, the federal government —  having run out of options short of recognizing Budlakoti as a citizen — agreed to release him to his parents under strict conditions, which included a 9 p.m. to 9 a.m. curfew. His documents were invalidated, meaning he could no longer work legally or access social or medical services. Officially, he was permanently awaiting deportation. Budlakoti had been cast into what his immigration lawyer, Yavar Hameed, has called a “legal black hole.”

In the years since Budlakoti has been fighting to stay in Canada. He contends that the details of his parents’ embassy employment are too murky for the government to rule against him; that too little thought has been given to the fact that he was raised entirely in Canada and within its institutions; and that, even if there had been a mistake, it would largely fall on his parents. Budlakoti believes his criminal record is being used as a basis to strip away his citizenship. Portraying himself as a target of bureaucratic overzealousness and racism, he has toured the country on trips paid for by crowdfunding campaigns and has spoken at university campuses alongside prominent immigration and refugee lawyers.

In 2013, a group of sympathetic activists and academics who call themselves Justice for Deepan, or J4d, sprang up in Ottawa to raise awareness of his story; in 2015, members placed “ Deepan for Citizen” lawn signs throughout the city. Budlakoti has appealed to the United Nations and visited politicians’ offices. He has appeared on radio, local TV —  anywhere that would have him. His ordeal has even been made into a short film called Stateless. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association, Amnesty International, and former Green Party leader Elizabeth May have all written letters of support.

It doesn’t help Budlakoti’s situation that he can’t seem to stay out of trouble. In October 2015, only a few months after the conditions of his deportation order were eased for good behavior, he was ticketed for going sixty-five kilometers per hour over the speed limit in a rented Chevy Camaro. Then, later that year, he was arrested on drug-trafficking charges. In his apartment, police found a semiautomatic handgun, $3,000 in cash, and 144 grams of cocaine. In 2017, he was arrested again, as part of a major anti-gang operation. Labeled a “key player” by Ottawa police, Budlakoti faced a total of eighty-three gun-related charges. According to court filings, he sold weapons to an undercover informant.

Budlakoti’s behavior frustrates supporters, but it also raises troublesome questions about the way we value citizenship and the advantages it provides. How would it stretch our sense of justice to protect someone like Budlakoti? What does it say about a country if it fails to?

“NO ONE ELSE can ever understand the full extent of what I’m going through,” Budlakoti says over the phone from the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre, where he has been in custody since 2017. His voice betrays little emotion, and while polite, he has no interest in small talk. He has been speaking about his citizenship ordeal for so long that it has produced a distant self-awareness as if he were discussing someone else. He describes his cell conditions — shared, with no access to fresh air or daylight. He is shackled when he visits doctors and strip-searched going to and from the courthouse despite being under surveillance for the duration of the trip. Normally lean, Budlakoti has become gaunt, having lost fifty pounds in prison. His legal battles bring his days into sharp focus. “If I don’t move forward,” he says, “it will drive me, basically, to suicide.”

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