Russian-Speaking and Without Papers

(Photo via V Novom Svete)

President Trump’s new immigration law has run into trouble for the second time. This time it has been blocked by federal judges, who view it as a violation of constitutional norms. The fate of the law is still undecided. Nevertheless, a growing sense of unease related to immigration regulations is hanging in the air. This feeling of fear is especially evident among undocumented immigrants. Rumors about secret raids by the agents of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), arrests on the street, and on public transportation have begun to concern our community.

The newspaper, “V Novom Svete,” decided to ask “our” undocumented what they truly think about this new reality. Our freelance correspondent, Ted, met and spoke with two of them. The following is an account of the interviews conducted:

My first interviewee was Alexander Sochnev. It is his real name. The impression I got from him is that he had nothing to hide.

Boomerang effect

Sasha, where are you from and when did you arrive in America?

I am a native of the Gomel region in Belarus. I was born in 1978. I graduated with honors from the Faculty of Investigators of the Academy of the Interior Ministry, Belarus. While studying at the Academy, I received an increased stipend from the President’s Fund that supported talented youth. Also, for excelling in my studies, I was awarded commendations from the chief of the Academy. Then I worked in the criminal offenses department. I was repeatedly honored with government rewards and various certificates of merit. I achieved the rank of lieutenant colonel of the military police. I never got involved in any of the political unrest occurring at the time in Belarus. I always held out the naive belief regarding the progressive statements of President Lukashenko, and his “successful fight” against corruption. It all turned out to be a bluff. Perhaps I give you the impression that I am an old-fashioned person, but in fact, I am a very honest man. I have certain principles in life, and the most important is to follow the law. Therefore, my attempt to confront corrupted officials seemed to have a boomerang effect on me.

How and what exactly happened? Explain please.

Believe me, in my country even if there is no one to blame, blame can be easily found, and pinned on someone else. In 2012, I was forced to leave the Ministry of Internal Affairs after three men paid me a visit one night. Two of them identified themselves as being KGB employees, whereas the third man was dressed in a militia uniform. One of the committee members said that it would be better for me to keep my mouth shut about the government, its policies, and corrupt officials; otherwise, I would be spending the next 10-12 years in prison. He also told me not even to think about a possible job in government. They beat me, to enforce this threat, and then left. To be honest, I think I got off lightly. In a worst-case scenario, I could have simply disappeared, in the way that many opponents of the regime and members of the opposition did at that time. I had to leave the service and resign from the police. I have all the documents proving my words.

Sasha, how did you end up in America?

I had a tourist visa. I didn’t plan to leave my motherland forever, I just wanted to go away for a little while, wanted to recover from all the dramatic events. I decided to go for a two-week tour to the U.S. and in May 2014 I arrived in the United States. While still in New York, I found out that my apartment in Minsk had been raided shortly after I had left. I began receiving multiple “notice to appear” orders from local enforcement authorities. What kind of punishment could it possibly be? And for what? I simply don’t know. Why were they looking for me so desperately? Well, it is actually not that difficult to guess. Nothing changes there.

And you, realizing that a return to Belarus would be tantamount to a death sentence for you, applied for asylum in the United States?

Yes, exactly. However, at the first instance I was refused status. I do not know if either the lawyer was incompetent, or the immigration services did not look into the details of my case. I received a refusal notification, and now the case is going to trial.

How have you been living the past three years?

All this time I have been working. I needed to survive somehow so I was doing physical labor. I even found the opportunity to get into Queensborough College.

Well, good luck to you!

After our conversation, Sasha proceeded to show me messages from his friends in Minsk. They said that police still inquire from time to time if Sasha had returned from the United States.

Suffering the Misery of Mixing Salad

My second interview subject was Denis (he asked that his real name not be used). We first met through a friend who recommended Denis to me when I needed help moving furniture around in my apartment. Then he arrived, a cheerful, confident guy, who seemed about 30 years of age. He initially struck me as having an innocence and positivity about him. Eventually our casual conversation progressed into an interview.

Denis, tell me about yourself.

I grew up in a small town called Kizel, which is located in the Perm region, Russia. I came to the U.S. three years ago. As you know, it is hard to make enough money in Russia, and I have elderly parents who need financial help, and a disabled brother. The whole family relies on me. In Kizel I worked in the manufacturing of expansive clay, a type of material similar to concrete, which is used in construction. The salary was a pittance, but there was little chance for me to find another job in Russia. Therefore, I made the decision to get a tourist visa and go to the U.S. I knew that here there would be enough work for a hardworking guy like me.

Do you remember your first impression of New York?

You bet! It was like a fairytale for me. Manhattan was like a miracle; everything around looked so beautiful. I still try to get away from Brooklyn and Brighton Beach, where I live, and head to Manhattan when I am off. It feels as if I am living in two parallel worlds.

How are you getting on here? Where are you working?

My first job here I found through an agent. The conditions were as follows: I had to pay a $25 application fee, and when she found me a suitable job, I would give her my first week’s pay. I now understand that it was nothing but a scam. The job was to work in a basement kitchen in Borough Park, along with some Mexican guys for $6 an hour. “Well,” I thought, “it is what it is, I am accustomed to hard work, so will handle it.” To say that it was difficult is an understatement. I worked 14 hours a day, carrying sacks, unloading cars, washing the kitchen, and the worst thing that I had to do was to stir salads. Do not laugh, Ted. It is not as easy as it sounds to mix salad in a bathtub with a capacity of almost 90 lbs. with your hands. All these sticky and viscous dressings, I would have to mix with my bare hands because gloves would tear quickly and, sometimes, the pieces of latex would remain in the salad. I would come home and fall asleep exhausted. Over the weekend, I would stay in bed trying not to move my arms; every movement was painful. A few days later, the boss came and told me that I was not good enough for him. When asked about the money, he said that he had already given it to my agent. In response to my outrage, he said he would call the police.

And were you often deceived?

A few times, but it was only small stuff and always by Russians. There’s a cafe on the boardwalk, and God help anyone wanting to get a job there. I worked there for a while as a busboy. The rudeness of people, the cursing, and even humiliation, was too much for me to take. Even the kitchen was a total mess, worse than any railway station bathroom could be! Another example was a restaurant on Emmons Avenue with the southern-like name. They would supposedly hire young people after the completion of a probationary (and payless) period. After this week was completed, however, they would tell them that they were not the right people for the job. In other words, they were getting week after week of free labor. There is another restaurant located in Brighton Beach. I do not want to say the name, but there is always a sign on the door, reading: “Busboy needed.” Different place but the same principles seem to apply: a person works there for a week, and then finds out that he is not good enough! I actually started being afraid of Russians; each wanted to take advantage of newly arrived immigrants, because they knew they had limited options. For me it was a tragedy when the whole of Brighton Beach seemed to campaign for Trump. I stay away from politics, but isn’t it racism, when immigrants vote for the man who promises to get rid of immigrants?

Has anything changed in your life since Trump became the president?          

Many things have changed. I have begun to live in fear; fear of running into an immigration officer in the subway or on the street because I am here illegally. When I arrived, I never thought about getting my legal papers, I had a different goal in mind: to survive, and to help my family at home. Moreover, how could’ve I gotten them anyway? I am not gay, nor do I come from a place where war is currently taking place, so I couldn’t claim refuge or asylum. I came to this country with $300 in my pocket. I make a few bucks more now, but all of it goes towards living expenses or to supporting my family back home. But I still know that there are plenty of people who are worse off than me. I sincerely feel sorry for those Chinese and Mexican people, working so hard. Many of the Chinese people don’t even rent a room, but only a shared bed in a room with others.

How is that?

One person works at night, and the other one during the day. They sleep in one bed in turns, like shifts.

What are your plans for the future?

I do not know. Documents do not appear out of thin air. Plus, I don’t have enough money to marry anyone either to hurry the process along. I guess I will continue to work odd jobs here and there, until I am found and deported. There are few other options for me here, but I don’t want to go back home. There’s no work or money there, and everyone drinks so much. Perhaps, maybe I will meet a girl one day who will fall in love with me… although nowadays girls seem to be only interested in wealthy guys. Nobody wants an ordinary guy here. Well, anyway, we will see …

These two conversations left a bitter residue in my heart. In my opinion, both of my interviewees absolutely do not deserve to be deported. They do not steal, or are involved with drugs, but work honestly and hard. And at the same time they do not take jobs away from American people, because no American would want to withstand such conditions. Another point is that both entered the country legally, though overstayed their visa. Both also have rational reasons not to return to their homeland.

The fact that silver-tongued Trump promises to make America great again does sound very good, yet it would be nice actually to see that moment. As they say, promising does not equal implementation.

Editor’s note

We wanted to brighten up these two rather gloomy stories by including something positive. Not everything is so bad in the lives of those who have no legal status in America. A Ukrainian women N. (she also asked not to use her real name) has been working as a babysitter in New York, and does not seem to be complaining about her life at all: “I love children. I like taking care of them,” she says.

Rings of deceit

Where did you come from and when?

I arrived from Zaporozhye, Ukraine, in 2005. My profession at home was an engineer-technologist, radiologist; I scanned the details used for airplane and helicopter engines. My job was to identify cracks and other defects that could not be easily detected.

Why did you decide to leave?

Because it was my lifelong dream. Many of my friends had immigrated to America long before I left myself. For 10 years in a row, I could not get a visa, but I kept persisting and going to the American Embassy in Kiev. I was never satisfied with my life in Ukraine. When the Iron Curtain had finally fallen, I immediately traveled to my first major capitalist country, Finland. I was shocked. I compared it to my own life in Ukraine, and realized in what a mess my sons and I were living! After the collapse of the Soviet Union, I quit the factory, and managed to open four booths at the local market. Business was going well but I then reached the point where I wanted to change everything in my life.

How many children do you have?

I have two sons. The eldest is 40; the other one is 31.

What about your husband?

I divorced him. He drank heavily and never accomplished anything. I had no desire to fight his addiction; therefore, I went to America alone. One of my girlfriends sent me an invitation. Ukraine approved my visa for 10 years and America allowed my visitation for six months. So, I overstayed.

Have you tried to legalize?

What can I do? Obtaining refugee status is impossible. The only opportunity is through a fake marriage. I could have tried to get status through religious asylum, but I did not think about it back then.

Is your current status bothering you?

Not at all! I renewed my Ukrainian passport when my old one expired; it has helped me to get an IDNYC (New York City identification card). Thanks to this, I was able to open a bank account and apply for credit cards. I also pay my taxes regularly.

You have been living here for 12 years. Are you happy with your life?

Absolutely! Everything is great! I love my job. However, I do seem to have it easy compared to my Ukrainian friends. One of my friends from my hometown, let’s call her S., moved to New York from Los Angeles, and found a job as a live-in babysitter somewhere on Long Island, but the family turned out to be poor and never paid her on time. She told me, at some point they owed her $1,200. In order not to pay her, they framed her for theft. When the landlady and S. went shopping, her daughter sneaked into my friend’s room in the basement and put two of her rings in S.’ jewelry box. Soon, when “the missing” rings were located, the host’s daughter threatened: “If you do not want us to call the police and deport you, take your stuff and get out!” Then S. figured out that she probably wasn’t the first, and wouldn’t be the last, to fall into this trap.

Some illegal babysitters assert that live-in babysitting can be akin to domestic slavery. Do you agree with that?

Many people are afraid to make a fuss when they become victims of this kind of fraud. However not all are afraid. Another friend of mine, who can be a little more impulsive and determined, worked for three weeks for a woman in Newark. Her employer suddenly fired her without paying her wages, accusing her of not finishing something. Then my friend called the police, requested a Russian interpreter who translated everything to the police, and the employer had no other choice but to pay her. All this does not stop people from Ukraine coming here to America. Some leave their families and children. I know some people who came here through the tunnels across the Mexican border, risking their lives.

Do you feel a hardline approach of the new president toward undocumented immigrants?

Fear has always been present, and is even more so now. But I stand steadfast by my reasons for not leaving this country.

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