By Dina Tokbaeva
When 21-year-old Myrza and his new bride received visas to travel to the United States in 2008, his relatives beamed. Myrza had just finished his junior year at the Kyrgyz National Law Academy, and he and his wife, Aiperi, had secured spots in a coveted State Department-sponsored program. But Myrza’s family was not merely celebrating the youngsters’ chance to take a summer tour: they knew the couple intended to leave job-strapped Kyrgyzstan for good.
Myrza and Aiperi (not their real names) were participants in a State Department program allowing students to work summer jobs and travel for a few weeks around the United States. Four years later, Myrza and Aiperi live in the Midwest. Myrza works in construction and Aiperi cleans motel rooms. They have an 18-month-old daughter, born in the United States, and thus an American citizen, and live in a cramped apartment with several other Kyrgyz families, also illegal immigrants.
The Summer Work Travel program brings over 100,000 foreign students around the world to the United States annually; about 700 of them came from Kyrgyzstan this year. According to the State Department website, the program “engages young people from around the world with a goal of fostering mutual understanding.” While a vast majority of the students return home after their visit, a few participants from Central Asian countries and elsewhere see the program as a fast track to immigration.
“We knew when we applied to the program that we would stay longer. I know it’s breaking the law, but there are so many of us living here illegally,” Myrza told EurasiaNet.org via Skype. “Unless you commit a crime, no one notices you.”
The program is considered a prestigious way for Kyrgyz students to spend a summer in the United States, said Elmira Kudaibergenova, the education abroad manager at Kyrgyz Concept, one of 12 agencies in Kyrgyzstan that help manage students’ applications. To be eligible, students must speak rudimentary English and be able to afford airfare and private agency fees, which run from $900-$1300 – a relative fortune in a country where the average monthly wage is less than $200. In turn, the agencies help students find a job offer, often in the service industry.
Students like Myrza and Aiperi who fail to return are potentially ruining the program for the majority of honest students, Kudaibergenova said.
A US Embassy spokesman in Bishkek cautioned that overstaying a visa “may cause the visa holder to be ineligible for a US visa in the future,” and stressed that the vast majority of students in the Work and Travel Program “have a great experience and return home.”
Though he said the Embassy monitors whether students return, the spokesman declined to share numbers. Kudaibergenova, who has worked on the program for three years, estimates that 10 percent of those who get a visa and travel to the United States overstay their visas.
Several other students in Bishkek who have been on the program confirm they know people who left with a Summer Work Travel visa and failed to return. Though some agencies have started requiring parents to sign a promissory note of $5,000 should their children not return, students figure they can make that money back quickly in the United States.
Of course, the Summer Work Travel program is by no means the only way to enter the United States illegally. Saltanat Liebert, a Kyrgyz-American professor studying illegal Kyrgyz immigration at Virginia Commonwealth University, believes more than 5,000 Kyrgyz may be in the US illegally. She estimates only a small percentage of them arrived under the Summer Work Travel program.
“Some people decide to stay in the United States after arriving as members of government or sports delegations,” she said at a lecture at the Institute for Public Policy in Bishkek on June 25. With corruption permeating all aspects of life in Kyrgyzstan, Liebert has found some people paid to be included in official delegations, while intending to remain in the United States illegally. “People who do not have anything to do with the government are willing to pay several thousand dollars to get into such a delegation.”
Others seek refugee status, pointing to recent ethnic violence and a dysfunctional judicial system in Kyrgyzstan, says Tilek Kuniev, a Kyrgyz citizen working (legally) at Valentini Law Offices in New York, which specializes in immigration issues.
“Every year, about 30 Kyrgyz citizens turn to our law firm seeking refugee status,” he told EurasiaNet.org. “When asked why they chose the USA, they say that it is easier to find a job here and authorities don’t protract the process of giving out refugee status, like in Europe.”
Yet for young professionals, the Summer Work Travel program is an appealing option in a country where choices are few.
Though she was one of the top students in her class at one of the top universities in Kyrgyzstan, 24-year-old Yuliya says she could not find a job because her family didn’t have the right connections. A year ago, she secured a Summer Work Travel visa and is now a waitress in the United States. “It’s better to be a waitress in United States than to be a waitress at home,” she told EurasiaNet.org.
Dina Tokbaeva is a freelance journalist based in Bishkek.