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Why We Need Much Tougher Immigration Policies: Some Sad Lessons from Brighton Beach

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses" is perhaps a noble sentiment. As immigration policy for the 21st century, it is barking mad nonsense. There should be only one litmus test for permitting immigration into the United States. Does it benefit the U.S. and our own citizens?


Imagine inviting someone into your home, who eats your food, then surreptitiously steals your silverware. And who then tells all his relatives what a schmuck you are, and that they should also come running to take full advantage of your naive generosity. Well, that is more or less the tawdry story of much of Russian immigration to the United States for the last four decades.

Immigration from Russia has not received much attention compared to the much larger flow of immigrants from South of the Rio Grande, but that can tell us much about the dangers of liberal immigration policies and a poorly policed border.

Americans often have romantic and naive ideas about what people in other countries think of the U.S. In the old melting pot narrative, the most courageous and enterprising folk in the village pick up their belongings, make the long sea voyage to America, and with hard work, pluck and a bit of luck forge a new life. In this telling, America is the land of opportunity, opportunity meaning the possibility to earn an honest living free of government oppression. And most immigrants of that earlier era embraced American values and strove to become good citizens of their adopted country.

We aren’t living in those days anymore. The realities of immigration from the former Soviet Union that I have observed convince me that without much stricter control of our borders, we risk the long term integrity of American society.

In 1974 Congress passed the Jackson-Vanik amendment, designed to pressure the Soviet Union to allow its repressed Jewish citizens greater rights to leave that country for the United States or Israel. And while many Jews were liberated from Soviet oppression, even more non-Jewish Russians used forged documents to avail themselves of the chance to leave their miserably poor backward country for the U.S.

With the final collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, several million Russians emigrated to America. Not many came legally. Some overstayed “tourist” visas, many others entered into fictitious marriages to get green cards. In general, their conduct should not inspire confidence. In Brighton Beach and other Russian enclaves, sleazy Medicare mills certify “back disorders” on a wholesale basis, with the result that a large percentage of Russian immigrants receive monthly government checks for life. According to the FBI, “Russian émigrés operating as individuals, or working in loose association, are perpetrating health-care fraud at a staggeringly high rate.” And a disproportionate percentage of financial fraud and other criminality also emanates from these enclaves.

And although they benefit from America’s generous welfare system, many of these “citizens” bitterly hate the hand that feeds them. I have something of an inside view into this community, and an appallingly large number of Russian immigrants nurse petty resentment against America and cling to a smug feeling of superiority to their “fellow citizens.” In this view, Americans are ignorant and backward people because they haven’t learned to recite Russian poetry by heart. And they believe that America is wealthy and prosperous only because of some perverse and unfair twist of fate, which has deprived Mother Russia of its rightful glory.

It’s above all a problem of mentality. When immigrants come to America, they don’t just simply abandon the loyalties and habits of their original homeland. Russia is among the most corrupt countries in the world, and dishonesty is so widespread and accepted that an honest person is considered a fool or worse. And so scamming America’s welfare system is actually often thought to be highly respectable. And most Russians are taught from childhood that America is a terrible country with no high culture, deserving only of contempt.

The last great wave of Russian immigration subsided once incomes in Russia went from a paltry $100 a month to a more liveable $1000. With the price of oil hurtling lower, the fragile and inefficient Russian economy is in danger of another 1990s style collapse, and with it another wave of people suddenly discovering that it is their dream to become American citizens.

Oh, but what about Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google? Well, of course some of these immigrants from the former Soviet Union have turned out to be model citizens and successful entrepreneurs. The United States can and should welcome selective immigration. The key word here is “selective.” Becoming a U.S. citizen (or legal resident) should be an honor and an opportunity we grant solely to those people eager and willing to make a positive contribution to our society and who regard that opportunity with the respect it deserves.

We should learn a lesson from our earlier open doors policies that not all immigrants are going to benefit America or respect its laws and values. And that should be the litmus test, that granting them entry benefits the United States, without concern for whether it is something beneficial for people to whom we have no duties or obligations. Otherwise we eventually risk national bankruptcy, financial and moral.

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