Foreign Policy Blogs

Boston Bombers: Is America’s Skewed Asylum System to Blame?

US visa hypocrisy

As a Russian who first came to America as a small child and later spent his university years in Cambridge, Mass., I felt particularly gripped by the ongoing Boston bomber saga. There remain so many questions about why these two brothers, to whom the U.S. had given shelter, passports, schooling and acceptance, turned so violently and tragically against their adoptive land.

But one additional question that I’ve been puzzling over has been: Who let them into the U.S. in the first place, and on what merit?

At the risk of sounding like a ranting Tea Party activist, I believe that the Tsarnaev tragedy should also be seen as an extreme consequence of America’s deeply hypocritical, two-tiered immigration system.

Maybe I’m just bitter. It took me a year of trauma to be allowed to come to study in the U.S. Despite the fact that I had a full scholarship to a major university, had lived in the U.S. when my father had studied there before and never overstayed a visa, and had done everything by the book, I was denied entry twice, forced to defer college and apply again the following year. The nearest thing to an explanation I’d ever received that that it all happened “right after September 11.” Except it was a full year later, and Russia had nothing even remotely to do with the attacks. If anything, my country’s leadership fully shared the Bush administration’s less-than-cuddly approach to the Muslim world.

And yet we are now learning that the Tsarnaev brothers received asylum in the U.S. in 2002, asylum from a (then more or less) democratic country! Sure, they hailed from a war torn region, but this was almost 10 years after the outbreak of the Chechen war, and they never even lived in Chechnya!

For far too long, the U.S. authorities have been using all their resources to interrogate, abuse, discourage and thwart legitimate visa applicants while credulously treating self-proclaimed asylum seekers with kid gloves, so long as they came from countries with which America was not getting along. This may have led them to miss a series of red-flags concerning the Tsarnaevs, which would likely not have happened had they been in the U.S. on visas or as illegal immigrants.

Historically, it was Russian Jews who were the main beneficiaries of this largesse. Even during the 1970s, it was highly debatable whether all the Jews who claimed asylum to the U.S. were really victims of special discrimination or simply ordinarily oppressed Soviets looking for a better life in a richer country. And who can blame them — who wouldn’t want to swap a dreary, cold, authoritarian country where a doctor makes less than a taxi driver in America, where the same doctor can be a millionaire? The fact is that while these disproportionately highly educated emigrants were actively encouraged to come to the states with no questions asked; while some were certainly victims of discrimination, others who are now living in the U.S. still joke about all the fibs they told the asylum officers. I have personally met several Russian speakers at college who told me that they emigrated to the U.S. in the mid-1990s, even the early 2000s, on asylum visas, claiming persecution, a full decade after Gorbachev lifted all restrictions on Jewish emigration. Over time, as relations with Putin’s Russia deteriorated, other groups have been added to the list of asylum candidates, and the cycle continues.

There’s an entire novel written about this by one of Russia’s most acclaimed novelists. The main character in Mikhail Shishkin’s Maidenhair is an interpreter who translates for Russian asylum seekers in Switzerland. Many, in fact, are from Chechnya.  And many of their stories are made up. At one point, an asylum seeker is told: “According to our instructions, improbability in statements is grounds for affixing this very stamp. So you’ll have to come up with a better legend for yourself and not forget what is most important: the minor details, the trivia.”

Of course, I’m not suggesting that all Jewish and Chechen asylum seekers are inherently untrustworthy (and I also realize how much this disclaimer sounds like the famous “I’m not a racist, but…”).  Many are, of course, victims of the enduring anti-Semitism and anti-Caucasian discrimination that continues to plague Russia. But there exists a perverse incentive to exploit the loopholes, and it can have security implications.

Imagine: You live in a poor, dirty, corrupt, dangerous and oppressive country with few opportunities for personal advancement. If, looking to make a new life and make some money for your family, you hop on a boat, or fly with a tourist visa and try to avoid going back home, or stow yourself away on a plane, or hide under a truck as it crosses the U.S. border, and you are caught, you will be immediately deported. This is the fate of most would-be immigrants from poor countries, like Mexico, or regions such as Latin America, Africa and Asia.

But, if you live in a poor, dirty, corrupt, dangerous and oppressive country with few opportunities for personal advancement, and want to make a new life and some money for your family, and your country is either an enemy of the U.S., such as Cuba or Iran, or you are part of an ethnic group that is viewed in the U.S. as a “David” oppressed by a Russian “goliath,” then you can walk in on the red carpet.

You’d be stupid not to make sure you get put in the second group, by hook or by crook.

Earlier this year, CNN reported on the trend for Mexican would-be immigrants to pretend to be Cuban in order to be allowed into the U.S. One man provided fake Cuban birth certificates and, like the character in Shishkin’s novel, instructed his clients how to correctly answer the authorities’ questions:

In one conversation with a confidential informant recorded by investigators, Morejon demanded thousands of dollars in payment for Cuban birth certificates and provided advice about how to answer questions from immigration authorities who might ask why he has a Mexican accent.

“‘Uh, because I work with a lot of Mexicans and I caught it (the accent) …'” period,” Morejon said, according to a transcript of the conversation filed in federal court. “You are Cuban … from today on … 3:25 in the afternoon you are entering the United States and you are Cuban.”

The fact is that the asylum seekers from Cuba, or the Chechen or Jewish ones from Russia, and the illegal immigrants from Mexico and elsewhere are all oppressed by the same things — lack of money, lack of potential, and therefore, lack of freedom — just as they all want the same thing: a better, safer, more successful life.

But the U.S.’s ideologically-induced blindness to this fact continues to think of all the first category asylum seekers as inherently good and trustworthy, and to view the second category of immigrants as inherently threatening, dangerous and dishonest. This way of thinking discriminates against hard-working, would-be immigrants who happen to not be from, say, Cuba, but still want to contribute to the U.S. economy, and feed their families or attend its universities. It also makes it easy for “bad guys” to take advantage of this situation.

As a result, we see people like Tamerlane Tsarnaev escaping without so much as a slap on the wrist things that would have easily seen other kinds of immigrants or visa holders deported. As the New York Times reports:

Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s record also showed that he had been involved in an episode of domestic violence in 2009. His father, Anzor, said in an interview on Friday in the Russian republic of Dagestan, where he lives, that Tamerlan had an argument with a girlfriend and that he “hit her lightly.”

Under immigration law, certain domestic violence offenses can disqualify an immigrant from becoming an American citizen, and perhaps expose him to deportation. But the Homeland Security review found that while Mr. Tsarnaev was arrested, he was not convicted in the episode. The law requires a serious criminal conviction in a domestic violence case for officials to initiate deportation, federal officials said.

In the wake of the Boston events, the U.S. has to start looking at reforming its irrational immigration and asylum systems as a national security priority.




Vadim Nikitin

Vadim Nikitin was born in Murmansk, Russia and grew up there and in Britain. He graduated from Harvard University with a thesis on American democracy promotion in Russia. Vadim's articles about Russia have appeared in The Nation, Dissent Magazine, and The Moscow Times. He is currently researching a comparative study of post-Soviet and post-Apartheid nostalgia.
Areas of Focus:
USSR; US-Russia Relations; Culture and Society; Media; Civil Society; Politics; Espionage; Oligarchs