Some of the world’s most developed and prosperous countries, which incessantly boast about their tolerance, have come face-to-face with the “intensification of the national question”. And today, one after another, they have had to admit their failure to integrate outside cultural elements into society and ability to ensure a peaceful, harmonious interaction between various cultures, religions, and ethnic groups.
The “melting pot” of assimilation continues to stall, unable to “digest” the growing migration flow. In politics, a reflection of this fact has been “multiculturalism”, which rejects the notion of integration through assimilation. It elevates the “right of minorities to be different” to the absolute and, at the same time, fails to balance this right with civil, and cultural obligations. More interesngly, these problems have existed and persist in our own backyard. New York City, and more directly Staten Island are at the forefront of the current debate on Comprehensive reform for immigrants. Legislation, such as the NYS Dream Act, serve to better the lives of immigrant Americans by providing equal education opportunity and a pathway to citizenship that enables all members of American society to participate freely and democratically.
Russian Immigrants in NYC
Much like the plight of most immigrant-Americans, that of the Russian is one often confused, and almost always mistold. An appropriate representation of this proclamation can be presented through the story of Yuri Shimanov, a Russisan-Uzbeki barber who rejected the grasp of the Soviet-Union and fled to the U.S., hoping one day to support a family that could grow in a free, democratic environment. However, before chronicling the events of Yuri’s life, it is necessary to explore the history of Soviet immigration to the greater New York City area.
The initial influx of immigrants from Eastern Europe to the United States preceded the Homestead Act of 1862. Millions of Russians immigrated to the new world in the last decade of the 19th century, some for political reasons, some for economic reasons, and some for a combination of both. Between 1820 and 1870 only 7,550 Russians came to the U.S., in 1881, immigration rate exceeded 10,000 a year: 593,700 and in 1891, 1900, 1.6 million from 1901–1910 . Most of these were Russians Jews fleeing religious persecution. Upon first arrival, Russian Jews started out in the slums of New York City, areas where German and Irish immigrants had lived before.
The opening of subway lines in 1917 allowed for more efficient transportation and expansion of ethnic groupings; however Jews were deliberately excluded from such development plans, isolating most Russians into ethnic enclaves. It was not until the 1950’s that Russians began to move outward to neighborhoods such as Jackson Heights and Brighton Beach in Brooklyn. It was in Brighton Beach that Russian Jews help restore a deteriorating community. As elderly residents headed south for warmer waters, empty houses and apartments emerged. The flood of Soviet Jews that immigrated to the decaying community in the late 80’s helped restore the neighborhood and its commercial markets as well . Yuri Simonov’s story, like many modern Russian immigrants, starts here.
Growing up in Soviet Russia, and later Soviet Uzbekistan, Yuri Shimanov experienced little social freedom, and being a Jew, struggled with religious inequity for most of his young life. At 19 years old, free from the reigns of the Soviet Union, he fled Uzbekistan and landed in Brighton Beach, hoping to one day own his own American business. He moved in with his cousin and enlisted in English language classes at the local college. Struggling to find his niche, he took his cousins advice and got his barber’s license. He did not foresee cutting hair as a long term option, but he enjoyed it, and saw it as a way to polish his English skills. Yuri worked in Brighton Beach until he was 21; it was in 1993 that Yuri took a second job in Midtown Manhattan that he really began to feel like a true New Yorker. He explained in our interview that “working on Broadway (avenue) was interesting. I had customers from all over the world, struggling to speak English. Just like me. It was then that I felt like a real New Yorker” . For the first time in Yuri’s life he had an “identity”.
The Struggle for Cultural Identity
Immigration, for any ethnicity is a difficult process. The decision to leave one’s country, their home, in hope of finding something better, brings about social disconnect and separation from cultural ideologies. In most cases, the immigration experience is accompanied by acculturation. In the most general terms, acculturation can be deﬁned as “the process of cultural change and adaptation that occurs when individuals from different cultures come into contact” . For a Russian, Uzbek, or any immigrant eluding the Soviet Union, finding an identity in a foreign land can bring about confusion and frustration. Supporting immigrant individuals and protecting them from instability and distress through acculturation processes, has and may never be the central focus of Immigrant policy in the state of New York. However, stories like Yuri’s, may provide substantive documentation of a more gradual, less confusing process of assimilation. The need for professional trade does not drive immigration flow to the United States. Being a young, relatively untrained professional, an immigrant like Yuri would be tabbed as “low skill”. Since 1965, Soviet immigrants from the formerly known USSR have contrition collecting government aid . The influx of Soviet Immigrants has contributed to creating low level jobs , a barber for example. However, what makes a Yuri an exemplar case study in acculturation is his ability to climb the ladder of capitalistic structure; all the while he was struggling to find his identity.
The trend of immigrant “specialty” is consistent with the arrival of “low-skill” workers. Today, we see Mexican and Ecuadorian laborers, just as Russian immigrants filled such positions 20 years ago, and as Jews and Italians did 100 years ago . (105) However, just as specialty is consistent, gradual improvement of education and eventual job placement is consistent for second generation immigrants. New York’s economy has been able to consume over two million immigrants over the previous two decades, and due to its complex, more technologically advanced economy there is a wide array of jobs available to the sons and daughters of immigrant couples .
Yuri has been able to maintain his shop in Queens and consecutively work as a part time barber in several shops in the Queens area, thanks to the help of his wife, and cousins who emigrated from Uzbekistan in 2003. Yuri now has three kids, the eldest turned 10 this June. The success Yuri has seen is not only inspirational, but somewhat uncommon. As the case has been throughout American and New York antiquity, an unstable economy carries scapegoats and as is consistent, those scapegoats are almost always immigrants. The steps on the ladder of social mobility, become further and further apart with each piece of legislation that passes in favor of those who do not support comprehensive reform. However, the state of New York remains on the cusp of positive change.
The NYS Dream Act
The New York State Dream Act provides a pragmatic approach to helping young, undocumented youth . If this bill were to be mandated, it would provide immigrants opportunities to succeed just as Yuri Shimanov did. Yuri’s story is not the most common tale of assimilation and immigrant success. Everyday families are separated, deported and deprived of the American “Dream”. It is for this reason, when confronted with pressing matters on immigration reform, Yuri chooses to remain silent. He does indeed realize that stories like his are few and far between. The social and economic benefits of immigrating to the U.S. prove to out-weigh the negative implications that coincide. Depriving immigrants the right to a fortuitous education, job experience, and overall being is simply unjust.
“The New York DREAM Act would allow undocumented students who meet
in state tuition requirements to access financial aid and scholarships for higher education. It would also open 529 tuition savings accounts to all New York youth, and establish a DREAM Fund Commission to raise private funds for a college scholarship program for children of immigrants”
Yuri Shimanov is proof that immigrants do not “steal” jobs from American workers. As mentioned before, immigrants are actually more likely to fulfill more undesirable positions. Such is the case of Yuri Shimanov, many immigrants actually provide services (e.g. Barber Shops) and create jobs through such practice. Denying immigrants’ access to higher education is stripping our country of future business makers, lawyers, doctors, teachers, mentors, and change makers. The historical narrative of the U.S. would only improve, as immigrants boost social security , consistently pay taxes, and once again create jobs . Stripping our nation of such people is a regression of the American ideal, betraying the very immigrants who helped shape this country, and more directly this great state of New York. It would render stories like Yuri Shimanov’s frivolous. It will make no difference whether the depravation is wrought under the name of liberty or democracy, what will remain is an inexplicable lack of appreciation that has, and will seemingly last for centuries to come.
As it remains, the world’s hegemony and wealth majority, incessantly boast tolerance and acceptance. Today they come face-to-face with the “intensification of the national question”. And today, one after another, they have had to admit their failure to integrate outside cultural elements into society and ability to ensure a peaceful, harmonious interaction between various cultures. As utopian comprehensive immigration reform may seem, the pragmatic tools are in place to make it a reality. In all likelihood, the bill will not pass, or at least in its initial intention. However, the story of Yuri Shimanov should give such credence to legislation like The DREAM Act, and the historical accounts of Russian immigrants, past and present should only highlight the benefits of American and New York State immigration alike.
Shlapentokh, Vladimir, and Munir Sendich. The New Russian Diaspora: Russian Minorities in the Former Soviet Republics. New York : M.E. Sharpe, 1994.
Foner , Nancy. From Ellis Island to JFK:New York’s Two Great Waves of Immigration. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000.
Shimanov, Yuri. “From the USSR to the U.S.: an argument in favor of the NYS Dream Act.” HI325, April 1, 2013.
Schwartz, Seth J., Marilyn J. Montgomery, and Ervin Briones. The Role of Identity in Acculturation among Immigrant People: Theoretical Propositions, Empirical Questions, and Applied Recommendations. working paper., Florida International University2006.
Ofer, Gun, and Aaron Vinokur. The Soviet Household Under the Old Regime: Economic Conditions and Behaviour in the 1970s. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
Zamaan, Razeen, Jessica Rofe, and Rebecca Phipps. New York Dream Act, “New York State Youth Leadership Council.” Last modified March 25, 2013. Accessed April 15, 2013. http://www.nydreamact.org/.
“How Immigrants Saved Social Security.” The New York Times, , sec. Editorial , April 2, 2008.
Capps, Randolph, and Michael E. Fix. Urban Institute, “Nonpartisan Economic and Social Policy Research .” Last modified November 01, 2001. Accessed April 15, 2013.