To Russia With Love? The American Debate About Illegal Immigration in International Context

Wait around the arrivals lounge of any really big airport of a big country and you might learn something about how immigration to the place works. On my most recent return home to Los Angeles via the aerial bus station otherwise known as LAX, for example, I landed shortly before midnight on a flight from Denver. As I walked through the terminal to get to the baggage claim, I noted a couple of the international flights that leave late: Air China to Beijing, Thai Airlines to Bangkok, Japan Airlines to Tokyo, Air New Zealand to Auckland, and so on – the long-haul Asian routes. However, I was surprised to see alongside bleary-eyed Asian Americans and Kiwis waiting to depart huge crowds of Hispanic Americans and Mexicans either waiting in line or getting off of several hellishly-timed flights to cities like Guadalajara, Monterrey, and León – some of the biggest cities in Mexico, with populations over a million people.

It reminded me of similar experiences in the airports of the Former Soviet Union. Once, arriving into Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport (the one that was attacked by a terrorist bombing recently), I was distressed to find that my luggage had not made it on the flight from Dulles Airport in Washington, DC. Assuming that I would never see the bag again if I left things in the hands of airport staff (who would later manage, miraculously, to deliver the bag to an apartment in suburban Moscow both punctually and professionally), I hung around the baggage claim area for close to an hour, making sure that the bag would not, as if by its own will, manage to pop out of the chute.

Before long, almost all of the other passengers on the Washington-Moscow flight had left, but I soon began hearing Persian (or rather Tajik) being spoken around me. Several flights from provincial cities in Central Asia like Khujand, Kurgan-Tyube, and Andjian had just touched down, and the rush was on among Tajik and Uzbek passengers to claim their bags and get out of the airport.

Later that fall, having arrived at the Dushanbe airport at an ungodly hour to make a flight to Istanbul, I waited (similar to LAX) in a bus-station like antelounge with several Tajiks who were waiting for flights to not only Moscow and Petersburg but also provincial Russian cities like Ekaterinburg, Novosibirsk, Omsk, and Krasnoyarsk. Many of them would remain there for months or even years at a time to work in menial labor jobs to then take the earnings back to families in what Russians call “the near abroad” (blizkoe zarubezh’e) – the countries of the former Soviet Union. But others might just have well had planned to overstay visas, to make a new life for themselves in the underground economy of Russian cities, or simply to take their chances in a wealthier place than Tajikistan — to become, in other words, illegal immigrants.

GOP intentions to build a giant electrified fence or a massive crocodile pit along the US-Mexico border could bring boon times to your local croc farm, but it probably won't solve immigration

Illegal immigration has recently become a big issue in American politics again. President Bush attempted to guide comprehensive immigration reform through Congress in 2006-2007, but the bill failed to pass for complicated reasons. Some Democrats didn’t like how restrictive it was in terms of allowing families to reunite (as opposed to a more skills-based approach to immigration), while many conservatives were against the notion of there being a path to citizenship for people who had illegally entered the country in the first place. While I have written critically about aspects of illegal immigration in the United States elsewhere – in particular the notion that illegal immigrants should ever be given priority access to public benefits ahead of tax-paying American citizens – the Bush reform approach looks awfully good in retrospect.

That’s especially true given what the GOP field has been offering recently. Many candidates have criticized Governor Perry for a tuition reduction plan similar to the one California just passed – fair enough. But both Congresswoman Bachmann as well as Hermann Cain have insisted on the need to build a giant fence – in the case of Mr. Cain, preferably electrified enough to wound, maim, or kill any trespassers – across the length of the US – Mexico border. At the same time, they make few constructive suggestions for how the country can balance the need for low-wage but important labor to be done by people who are happy to do it, its own security, a culture where obeying the law, and a United States where recent immigrants view some basic assimilation (learning the English language, identifying to some extent with American values and institutions as opposed to ethnic ones).

And yet, the Democratic Party has offered few compelling policy solutions to this issue. Depressingly, several self-appointed Hispanic “community leaders” have not only criticized the GOP for making comments that sound awfully anti-Hispanic but have themselves made comments suggesting that Hispanic Americans who immigrated legally should have ethnic solidarity with illegal immigrants – a position that deserves to be rejected by all Americans. In short, solving this hugely complex question requires more maturity from the GOP base, more courage from the Democrats, less racism towards Latino Americans, and less identity politics. Good luck!

Making English a national language would be just one complex step in any potential immigration reform program

It’s an awfully complex debate, but I wonder whether the specific problems driving the immigration problem in North America might become any more clear if we try to put it in more international context – specifically, with Russia. Russia might not be the most obvious country to compare the USA to on the issue of illegal immigration. Many Americans are aware of the problems that European countries, especially in the south of Europe, face with illegal immigration from northern Africa. But outside of (in terms of absolute numbers) that relatively small problem, our political dialogue tends to be American-exceptionalist in the worst of ways. We obsess about electric fences across the border with Mexico without devoting serious consideration to how other geographically large, ethnically diverse countries – like Russia, or India for that matter – cope with problems of international labor, crime, citizenship, and human trafficking.

And Russia forms an especially interesting comparative case. (N.B. – while my primary professional and/or academic interests at the moment are in Russian and Soviet history, I claim no special expertise on the topic of immigration to Russia, beyond having visited the place several times, conversations with Tajiks about their reasons to work and/or emigrate there, and conversations with scholars who have examined the problem in greater detail. Among scholars I have met in person, I can recommend Lauren McCarthy, a young professor at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst who has worked on human trafficking in Russia and the Russian legal system – not quite the same topic but much closer to the issue than what yours truly works on.) Not only is Russia simply a big (11 time zones) and populous country (140 million people) like the United States, it also takes in huge amounts of immigrants. About 200,000 legal immigrants enter the country every year, and as recently (OK, not that recent) as 1996, illegal immigrants made up about 2 percent of the country’s population – more than the 1.9 percent for the USA. According to a 2007 article, there were between 10 and 12 million illegal immigrants in the country – close to eight and a half percent of the population. The USA has about as many illegal immigrants, but with a population that’s more than twice as large as Russia.

In spite of their love for nylon jumpsuits, many migrants to Russia find it difficult to assimilate

Making things even more complicated is the fact that there was this thing called the Soviet Union on top of the space that is now the CIS. Without asserting the primacy of history too much, the Soviet legacy on the immigration situation in the Eurasian space was huge. Even if it was easy for 30-year-old Uzbek men to get visas to, say, India or Turkey for work, Russian became such a lingua franca that pursuing work in Russia makes far more sense for guest workers from, say, Central Asia. The USSR formed an integrated economic system not only of heavy industry and factories, but more plebian things like fruit, vegetables, wine, and used cars. Many ethnic groups, through processes that are historically poorly understood but that Muscovites and residents of Petersburg can tell you all about, came to dominate certain commercial sectors in the big Russian cities and continue to do so. Even in post-collapse Russia, Caucasian ethnic groups like Chechens, Georgians, and Armenians dominate certain sectors of local and regional commerce, and have their own ethnic mafias that allow them to dominate and extract rents from commercial real estate in Russian cities, too.

While the educational systems in many post-Soviet states are diverse and have gone in different directions after 1991, Russian universities (often the best bet for a good education) maintain extension centers in cities in the Caucasus and Central Asia, meaning that the Eurasian space remains semi-integrated through education. At the same time, even though there are a lot of integrating processes going on, the former Soviet space remains more curiously ethnically divided or distinct than the United States does today. Scholars like Adrienne Edgar are at present investigating how many people married inter-ethnically in the late Soviet Union, but at the time of the Soviet crack-up, probably relatively few people would have described themselves first and foremost as “Soviet” in terms of identity.

Moreover, the fact that the USSR was nominally an ethno-federal system meant that when it did break up, the possibilities for assimilation were less for illegal immigrants; if there’s a state for Tajiks (Tajikistan) and you’re an illegal Tajik worker in Russia (in some sense a state for Russians), there’s less of an imperative to encourage you to stay there or integrate into the place, as compared to Mexicans in the USA, where America is decidedly not an ethnically-defined country. The United States may have deep ties with Mexico, but they were not as deeply institutionalized, whether in politics, education, or markets, as the Soviet space was. And even though Russia is kind of a state for ethnic Russians, it also has semi-autonomous republics within it, like Chechnya, Dagestan, or Ingushetia, where some of the most despised (by Russians) immigrants come from. Unlike in the United States, where if Mr. Cain were President we might seriously contemplated deporting every single illegal immigrant to her home country, Russians face the problem of an “immigrant” issue posed by people who are actually citizens of the Russian Federation.

Take that, Occupy Wall Street: Russian nationalists and skinheads occupy the front yard of the Kremlin in winter 2010-2011

There are other complicating factors. While the USSR maintained an internal passport system that, while, oppressive and unfair, was one way to manage internal migration, today’s Russia (in spite of onerous requirements for foreigners to register one’s place of residence) is a much more open place in terms of mobility. The country passed immigration reform in 2007 that set numerical quotas on the number of immigrants to the country annually, gave out harsh fines to employers who gave work to illegals, and streamlined application procedures for CIS residents seeking work in Russia; at the same time, however, it put heavy restrictions on the number of non-Russians who could work in low-skilled trades (construction and retail) with the eventual goal of a total ban on non-Russians in these trades.

Even after this reform, anti-immigrant sentiment still remains heated in Russia; in December 2010, after the murder of an ethnic Russian football fan by Caucasian immigrants in Moscow, there was a huge rally on Manezhnaia Square in central Moscow (right in front of the Kremlin) against Caucasians. The ideological situation in Russia on this issue remains far more heated than it does in the United States, too. After the events, the legal director of RKNK, a pro-Caucasian immigration organization that opposes Russian nationalist organizations, stated: “There’s no need to run with your knives after the skinheads – let the police deal with them. What I’ll say to the youth is this: you have different tasks ahead of you, you came here to study and to work. But according to the laws of the Sharia, you can have four wives. So marry, establish yourself with children, and work honestly. Then not only Moscow but all of Russia will be ours.”

Yikes! On top of this, even a reformist like Aleksei Navalny, whom The New Yorker profiled this summer, has joked about the need to repatriate “Asian” immigrants and gunning down lawless immigrants. It’s cliché to say that political issues map differently in countries other than the USA, but Russia is a great example of how similar basic issues (illegal immigration) combined with the failure of reform have yielded different political constellations than what we’re used to.

So what is the relevance to an American audience? What might we learn or have to reflect on our own American immigration situation after thinking about how other countries deal with it? A couple of thoughts come to mind.

One is, compared to Russia we still have things pretty good, both in terms of the immigration situation itself as well as with respect to nationals’ attitudes towards the issue. Russia, as has been well documented, finds itself facing demographic decline of “white” Orthodox or non-Muslim Russians over the next 20-30 years. Whether or not this is just a normal step as Russia assumes more “normal” European demographics is, as I understand it, still debated by sociologists and demographers, but the perception still remains strong in the country and its policy élites that Russia will need more people to compete effectively in the 21st century. More recently, birth rates are up, but overall population growth remains negative. On top of that, Russia right now, as of 2010, is actually in a sweet demographic spot, with lots of people in their 20s and 30s, but much fewer in their teens.

The USA has robust numbers of people of marrying and child-having age, but the difference is that the USA, as Joel Kotkin has written, has a much more robust demographic future ahead of itself, with a bottom-heavy population pyramid. This expansion of population in the USA will pose its own challenges (jobs, jobs, jobs, and reform to make it less bankruptcy-inducing for Americans to get an education, buy a house, have healthcare, and have children), but we find ourselves with an immigration debate more predicated on who we may have to keep out of the country than whom we are forced to let in to the USA. Both situations (population decline and growth) present their own challenges, but I’d rather have ours.

USA Population Pyramid in 2020

Another reflection is the role that language, culture, and assimilation play in debates about immigration. Here some of the peculiarities of the USA jump out. Much of the debate about immigration in Russia centers less around the failure of immigrants to “assimilate” or to anchor themselves in Russian culture. Groups like Tajiks, Uzbeks, Chechens, and Dagestanis speak perfectly passable Russian, at least enough to be employed in, say, a construction job. And while few of the Tajiks I spoke with who had worked in Russia had any ambition to live in Moscow or St. Petersburg for the very, very long-term, the cultural construction of a Caucasus or a Central Asia as a “near abroad” made the explicitly temporary presence of some foreigners more acceptable to some Russians I have spoken with. Mexico or El Salvador, meanwhile, although geographically quite close to the USA and with deep historical ties, is not a country that most white Americans would regard as “ours.” Rather, the debate around immigration in Russia seems to center much more around crime and violence. The murder that led to the Manezhnaia protests was just one of many in recent years perpetrated by Caucasians on “white” Russians (of course, there have also been cases of Russians attacking Caucasians or brown-skinned people, too).

There have been unacceptable cases of Mexican gangs, particularly in the crime-ridden North of the country, killing US citizens and federal employees, but my impression remains that few Americans would identify Latinos with “crime” so readily as Russians today do with Caucasians. Poverty, childbirth out of wedlock, obesity, unemployment, etc., remain disproportionate problems for the Latino community in the USA, but fortunately my impression here, too, remains that most Americans would view these as social problems that could be solved with discipline and time, rather than being evidence of some racial-political disposition that afflicts certain races; fortunately, Americans tend, at least for now, to be less ready to indulge in bizarre anthropological speculation on the essence of various races as compared to Russians.

At the same time, if there is something positive to be found in the ethnographic speculation that dogs Russian debates about immigration (distinctions between nations with “civilized norms” and “criminal norms” are common), it is that it tends to avoid some of the ethno-centric or race-centric thinking that dogs discussions about immigration in America today. As I linked up above, in the wake of comments about electrified fences across the border with signs pointed south saying “this will kill you,” some Americans, perhaps especially those of Latino descent, would not be wrong to read in those comments anti-Latino sentiment. Indeed, I personally intend to find great pleasure in watching the GOP palliate its base while at the same time seeking Latino votes, as its candidates try to find an acceptable position on illegal immigration.

Stefan Collini (Cambridge): writer of fine books and purveyor of good sense on most matters

However, at the same time, I am also uncomfortable with an America in which any ethnic group is considered to have electoral ownership of an issue – in this case, Latino-Americans and immigration – and I’m also uncomfortable with a United States in which it’s considered acceptable to put group (read: ethnic) solidarity ahead of national interest. I cannot respect Latino voters who, justifiably concerned about GOP rhetoric on immigration reform, feel that they have a collective electoral responsibility to threaten politicians seeking to impose more sanity and sense on a broken system. Nor would I support Democratic politicians who seek to exploit the immigration issue by gleefully jumping into political bed with a “Latino community” fearful of the GOP on immigration. The reason why is that in a mature democracy, to paraphrase the English critic Stefan Collini,

“where arguments are concerned – that is, matters that are pursued by means of reasons and evidence – the most important identity we can acknowledge in another person is the identity of being an intelligent reflective human being. This does not mean assuming that people are entirely  – or even primarily – rational, and it does not mean assuming that people are, in practice, always and only persuaded by reasons and evidence. […] But to so treat them means that, where reasons and evidence are concerned, they cannot be thought of as primarily defined by being members of the ‘Muslim community’ or ‘Black community’ or ‘gay community’ or ‘cycling community’ or any other ‘community.'”

Being able to have a mature conversation about immigration reform in the USA depends, in other words, on both politicians who are able to address Americans as just that (rather than as racial voting blocs to be mollified in spite of cultural differences between, say, Mexicans and Guatemalans) as well as genuine immigrant community leaders who are able to think in terms of national interest, and may be willing to sacrifice temporary clout within the “Latino community” in favor of principle. It might not be fashionable, for example, for Democratic Party members or church leaders from East Los Angeles to highlight the need to, yes, deport or grant a sane path to citizenship for illegal Latino immigrants to the California, while pressuring the federal government to grant visas to Afghan citizens who worked in difficult conditions for the USA and are likely to be murdered if they do not leave Afghanistan in the future. To inveigh about the rights of “undocumented immigrants” when it comes to the one group, but then to say nothing or do nothing about the rights of people who have clearly performed a service for the USA, and have pursued immigration through legal channels, would be hypocritical.

Who is willing to defend them and other Afghan allies as "undocumented immigrants"?

Russia! I don’t know when I’ll be back to her, but exploring the country and talking to Russians – and some of the Central Asians who work there – has broadened my horizons when it comes to thinking about immigration in my own country. Let’s home that we can emulate the best and avoid the worst of what Russia has done, and try to behave maturely, as the country hopefully tackles immigration under the next President, whether it is Mr. Obama’s second term or that of a President Cain, Romney, Perry, or someone else. But that’s enough for now – I have a flight to Khujand via Guadalajara and León to catch.

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