Caught in a crossfire

Even in western North Carolina, immigrants come in all shapes and sizes; they don’t always fit the stereotypes held by many Americans. Here is one such couple’s story:

On the surface, Sergey Ivanchenkov‘s life in the small, former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan seemed ideal. As chief executive director of the Swedish corporation Molnlycke SCA, he enjoyed a company car (a brand new Volvo) and a company-paid apartment, on top of his generous salary. And he had just married his beautiful, longtime sweetheart, Marina Aziliyevna. That was 1996, when Ivanchenkov was only 25.

But all was not well — not by a long shot.

As Christians in the middle of a Moslem country, he and his new wife feared for their lives, Ivanchenkov says, describing religious persecution in Uzbekistan as “rampant.”

“Gangs went around all the time breaking into homes, killing people, robbing them,” he remembers. “We were unsafe, especially because we lived in a place where these gangs knew people had some money and good possessions.”

Ivanchenkov says he felt he had two choices: stay there and be in constant danger, or come to America and start over in a country where he felt he’d be safe and have unending career opportunities.

Ivanchenkov, along with his elderly parents, applied for and were granted “parole authority” to come to America. Parole is a temporary status allowing noncitizens to enter the U.S. to escape potentially life-threatening emergencies — such as persecution based on race, religion, nationality or political opinion — or for other humanitarian reasons. After three months, parolees are given temporary employment authorization, and after one year, those who have been formally granted political asylum may apply for legal permanent residence in America.

Ivanchenkov planned to find work, then bring Marina over under the same parole provisions, a process he thought would take about a year. In the interim, however, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act kicked in, bringing tough new standards for both parole and asylum.

After completing the necessary paperwork, Ivanchenkov and Marina waited for what they thought would be the inevitable granting of her parole status. Under the new rules, however, Marina didn’t qualify.

As dicey as her situation in Uzbekistan might be, Immigration and Naturalization Service officials say it doesn’t constitute “urgent humanitarian reasons or significant public interest,” as required by the new parole guidelines. And another new restriction — requiring victims of religious persecution to have practiced their religion for at least 10 years — further hinders her efforts to gain parole. Though Marina is now a practicing Christian (a Baptist, like her husband), she wasn’t one 10 years ago — when she was 15 years old.

“I’ve tried every avenue,” says Ivanchenkov, pulling out a folder filled with various INS petitions and letters he and others have submitted on Marina’s behalf (along with a handful of wedding photos and other pictures of his wife). “But [the INS has] made a total refusal for her and closed the case.”

One of Ivanchenkov’s few remaining options is staying in America for five years after being granted legal permanent resident status — the time it takes to become an American citizen — and then submitting a spousal petition to bring Marina over. But in his mind, that just isn’t feasible.

“She’s my wife: I’m here, she’s there,” he states simply. “And I only lived with her for less than a year. I don’t see how I can wait that long to see her and live with her again.” (Under current parole guidelines, if Ivanchenkov left America to visit Uzbekistan, he would not be allowed to re-enter.)

All is not well for Ivanchenkov on the employment front, either. With a four-year degree in aircraft design and civil aviation, and four years’ experience in business management — including a position as sales manager for Pepsi International Bottlers’ subsidiary in Kazakstan — you might think this young man would have some prospects. Yet, despite his impressive resume and many glowing letters of recommendation, Ivanchenkov has been unable to find employment in anything even close to his field.

He now puts in a 72-hour work week — waiting tables and working on an assembly line — trying to make as much money as possible, in case he has to pay what he calls “big money” for immigration attorneys to somehow work a miracle. Ivanchenkov, however, reports that attorneys in at least seven states have already said there’s nothing he can do — short of waiting to become a citizen.

“I applied for so many sales jobs and administrative positions and management jobs at first,” he says, “but nobody would hire me. Finally, I had to take what I could get.”

So, despite the dangers, Ivanchenkov says he’ll probably end up going back to Uzbekistan to live with Marina.

“What has surprised me most about all this is that America supposedly stands for family values,” he observes. “Everyone talks about that all the time. But then they won’t allow husbands and wives to be together. That doesn’t seem like family values to me.”

This report provided by the Fund for Investigative Reporting, a western North Carolina news service.

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