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Under The Radar, Migrants From Central Asia, Georgia Head To U.S.

While it's more expensive and complex, many former Soviet migrants find the United States a more promising destination than Russia.
While it's more expensive and complex, many former Soviet migrants find the United States a more promising destination than Russia.
NEW YORK -- In a cramped and dimly lit apartment in one of New York City's predominantly Russian neighborhoods, three Kyrgyz women share a room. Each has traveled more than a fourth of the distance around the globe to get here, and their goal is clear: make money, use a little of it to get by, and send most of it back home.

These women are some of the nearly 50 illegal workers from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Georgia that Saltanat Liebert has studied for the past three years.

"The fairly large and growing group of migrants are migrants who arrive [in the United States] through irregular channels, meaning that they either come on tourist visas and overstay, or come through different channels," says Liebert, an assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia.

"It is also so under the radar, [that] there are no statistics [about them] and even the embassies of the home countries don’t know what the numbers are of their citizens who end up working in the United States illegally."

But while the number of these workers in the United States is unknown, Liebert's research provides a picture of who they are and how they managed to enter the United States.

Seventy-five percent of the workers that Liebert followed had completed their university education, and some had been doctors and professors in their home countries. That, she says, makes them significantly better educated than many post-Soviet migrants who seek work in Russia -- and better educated than many of the migrants who come to the United States from elsewhere in the world.

They tend to also come from larger cities, most are aged between 30 and 50, and many come from middle-class backgrounds. Their standing, says Liebert, gives them improved access to information about migration to the United States -- and, unlike poorer citizens, they are able to afford the associated costs.

Migration Methods

Although the journey to the United States can be far more complex than entering Russia, where many migrants from the former Soviet Union end up, the rewards can be significant -- greater opportunities to make more money, and a far lower risk of xenophobia and race-related attacks.

Seventy percent of the migrants that Liebert studied reported that they entered the United States with a tourist visa. To do so, they must pay an intermediary, who then pays off a U.S. citizen to sign the needed letter of invitation. After arriving, the migrants vanish into the informal labor market -- mainly in New York City.

But since September 11, tourist visas have become extremely difficult to obtain, forcing migrants to resort to other channels.

"One of the more reliable methods for migrants is to come as part of an official [foreign]governmental delegation, Liebert says, adding that prospective migrants pay corrupt government officials anywhere from $7,000 to $10,000 to be included as members.

"For U.S. consular officials, it’s very difficult to distinguish between bona fide government officials who are going on a business trip and those who are pretending."

According to Liebert, Meerim, a charity led by the former first lady of Kyrgyzstan, Mayram Akaeva, was a particularly successful channel for migrants looking to enter the United States. The migrants simply traveled with the charity's delegations of social workers, who were sent abroad for educational purposes.

But as the number of official delegations that visit the United States each year is relatively low, this method accounts for relatively few migrants. Others resort to more dangerous methods.

"The most 'direct' method is to be smuggled across the border from Mexico, and I have found that Georgian migration intermediaries have established good connections with Mexican smugglers and they arrange for potential migrants to obtain Mexican tourist visas," Liebert says.

"[The migrants] are then met by Mexican smugglers in Mexico City, and then they are literally smuggled across the border through Arizona. It might take 12 hours, but it might take four days. They don’t have food, they usually run out of water, and it would be fair to assume that there actually are fatalities."

Costs And Benefits

Many are tempted to enter the United States through smuggling, Liebert says, because it costs about $9,000 -- significantly less than the cost of an illegally obtained tourist visa.

Although they are often well-educated, their illegal status and lack of English means that migrants from Central Asia and Georgia are usually employed in low-wage, menial jobs. Men often find construction work, and many women become live-in home-care workers for the elderly. Others work in sweatshops.

They pay up to three weeks' salary to agencies that place them in a job, and are at the mercy of their employers.

Regardless of their work, all manage to send large amounts of remittances to family members back home -- from 50 percent to as much as 80 percent of their monthly earnings, according to Liebert. The migrants themselves subsist on what remains.

The flow of remittance money is welcomed by not only family members but the governments of the migrants' home countries as well.

"When it comes to Kyrgyzstan, for example, and Tajikistan as well, these are countries that send a very large share of their population abroad," Liebert says.

"It seems that migration has become...a way for them to resolve economic and social issues in the short term. All of these remittances not only provide a source of income for families left behind, [but] also ease social discontent. If there were no migrant remittances, I’m sure we would see a lot more unrest and revolutions than we do now, because government policies have certainly failed in many aspects, and the social security system is practically nonexistent."

Although remittances may work to combat political instability in the short term, the cycle of regime change that still characterizes much of Central Asia means that increasingly, migrants are giving up their plans of returning home, opting instead to stay in the United States long-term.

For the home countries, that means the loss of some of their most ambitious and educated citizens. And for the migrants staying in the United States, it means a whole new set of legal, social, and cultural barriers to overcome in order to improve their lives.

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