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U.S.: Russian-Speaking Immigrants In New York Still Feeling Effects Of 11 September

  • Francesca Mereu

The United States has always been considered a haven from war, ethnic conflict, and religious persecution. But many in the country's largest Russian-speaking neighborhood say they still feel vulnerable more than a year after the 11 September 2001 terror attacks. They are also seeking to adjust to tightened immigration policies that have made the travel of relatives much more difficult.

New York, 20 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Katerina Ivanova and her husband Dmitry decided to leave their native Belarus 10 years ago to seek better economic opportunities and escape anti-Semitism.

They opted for the United States, taking advantage of U.S. legislation on refugee resettlement that gave eligibility to specific categories of former Soviets -- Jews, Evangelical Christians, Ukrainian Catholics, and Ukrainian Orthodox -- considered probable targets of persecution.

The Ivanovs and their then-15-year-old daughter Lena settled in New York and found work, believing they had discovered the safe haven they were looking for. But life has not been the same for them since the 11 September 2001 terror attacks.

Ivanova says old fears have resurfaced. She was interviewed recently while pushing the pram of her newly born granddaughter in New York's Brighton Beach neighborhood. The area is home to some 15,000 Russian-speaking immigrants from the former Soviet Union, the largest Russian-speaking community in the United States.

The 55-year-old Ivanova, a former office manager in a firm in Manhattan, told RFE/RL that after the terrorist attacks in New York, the life of immigrants has radically changed. "After '9/11' [11 September] everything changed in our lives. We are going to be mourning for the rest of our lives. I lost my job and I'm not sure, if I'm going to live as comfortable how I [used to] live [before 11 September]. Because the economy will never be the same, at least for the next 10 years. I have friends who have lost their children and I cry for them. Everything has changed."

Another Russian immigrant, who would only give his first name, Mark, arrived in the United States 15 years ago from St. Petersburg. He owns a newsstand which functions as gathering place for Russian-speakers in Brighton Beach.

Mark says his life has not changed since 11 September. But he says that some of his Russian friends who had dreamed of emigrating to the United States changed their minds after the terror attacks on the World Trade Center. And others who remain interested in coming, he says, are having troubles in getting visas. "Now, less people come here, some refuse to come here. Many people are denied the visas, since once people come here they want to stay. They want to live here, in America."

Sergey Grigoryenko left the Ukrainian city of Odesa 15 years ago. He says that after the terrorist attacks, he and his wife have thought about moving to New Zealand, since "this is the only civilized place with no terrorisms and wars." Grigoryenko says he is worried that terrorists can organize another 11 September and since he is Jewish he fears becoming a target for what he calls "Islamic terrorism."

But most immigrants who spoke with RFE/RL in Brighton Beach don't intend to leave the United States, since most of them have settled here and have their own businesses and jobs.

Alexander Grant edits the current-affairs section of the popular Russian-language daily "Novoe Russkoe Slovo," (New Russian Word) published in New York. Grant, an immigrant himself, says, like in previous immigrant waves, people came to the United States to begin a new life away from persecutions, ethnic conflicts, and wars.

But 11 September upset their feeling of safety. Grant says that, according to his own interviews among Russian-speakers, security is now the main worry of most. "When during [Leonid] Brezhnev's time the so-called Jewish emigration began, it was possible to leave the Soviet Union only by Israel invitation. Those people were supposed to go to Israel. But once they arrived to Vienna -- this was their first stop [in their emigration journey] -- two representatives usually met them at the airport. One of them would suggest going to Israel, and the other to forget about it and [would recommend] going to the United States, Canada, or Australia. Most people didn't go to Israel and 90 percent opted for the United States. [Now those immigrants] feel at everyday level that to live in the United States has become tougher. [Moreover], at a human level, they feel that it is dangerous to live here. Since they have kids, a family, and they don't feel that this government is able to guarantee the 100 percent security it used to guarantee before."

Grant says the aftermath of the terrorism attacks has also caused identity problems for some in the Russian-speaking community. On the one hand, he says, immigrants feel themselves more American than ever. They have mourned the deaths of 75 Russian speakers among the 2,823 people to die in the World Trade Center attacks. But Grant says some immigrants have also felt themselves alienated by the rising nationalistic mood in the country.

And the process of entering the country has grown far more complicated as U.S. officials seek to improve border controls after terrorists exploited the existing system. The U.S. Congress passed the Enhanced Border Security Act, signed into law by U.S. President George W. Bush in May, which institutes a new system of background checks designed to prevent entry of potential terrorists. It is aimed at creating better information sharing between visa operations, immigration and law enforcement authorities. But immigration experts say it has also slowed the process for those seeking to visit the United States for extended periods.

Rachel Zelon is vice president of program operations with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which since 1970 has helped more than 400,000 refugees from the former Soviet Union to immigrate into the United States. She said that with the new procedure, it takes a longer period of time before people are able to come to the United States. "It has affected the immigration from all over the world. Essentially, from the former Soviet countries what we see is that it will take a significantly longer period of time to be able to travel to the United States. These background checks can take two to four weeks or up to three or four months before people get final approval. Even students who were very quick in terms of processing, [now] it's taking a very long time and we saw that many of the university students -- not necessarily from the former Soviet republic, but from all over the world -- missed the beginning of school because it did take quite a bit longer."

John Keeley, a research associate at the independent Center for Immigration Studies, said the new process is not intended to reduce immigration to the United States. But, he said, the system implies a greater scrutiny within temporary visa categories -- tourist visas and student visas. "The U.S. government, led by the Justice Department, is enforcing far greater scrutiny to the temporary visa categories, because that is a system that admits more than 10 million people each year to the United States, and it is a system that has been widely exploited by America's enemies. Principally [targeted are] nationals from countries whose government sanctions or sponsor terrorism and, of course, the Justice Department has championed profiling of those nations, targeting specifically young males who have very loose attachment to their homeland."

Figures for this past year were not immediately available from the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). During fiscal year 2001, which ended 30 September 2001, more than 1 million legal immigrants were admitted for permanent residence in the United States. Two percent of them came from Russia and 1.9 percent from Ukraine. The number of persons granted lawful permanent residence increased more than 200,000 compared to fiscal year 2000, according to the INS.

But some U.S. legislators and humanitarian groups have expressed concern at a clear decline in numbers of refugees admitted in the past year. The number of refugees admitted to the United States declined sharply in the fiscal year 2002 because security concerns after the 11 September attacks. The United States approved a target of up to 70,000 refugees for its refugee resettlement program for the fiscal year starting on 1 October 2001, but it admitted only some 27,000. In the previous year the U.S. took in more than 68,000 refugees.

The latest U.S. census says more than 2 million Russian speakers live in the United States, 600,000 of them in New York.