Marianas Variety

Last updateSun, 20 Oct 2019 8pm







    Sunday, October 20, 2019-5:47:16A.M.






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Russian dissidents stuck on Saipan

NOT long after Thanksgiving, a young couple walked into the Marianas Variety lobby and handed me a sheet of paper. It was titled, “Story about how we had asked protection of the US government, but have become homeless.”

In five paragraphs, Denis Uvarov explained how he and his wife, Natalia Larina, fled St. Petersburg in Nov. 2017 fearing persecution for attending political rallies and speaking publicly against Russian aggression in Ukraine. They had hoped to receive political asylum or refugee status on U.S. soil, but they’ve been struggling to navigate the American immigration system ever since they arrived.

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Before one of their bicycles broke, Denis Uvarov and Natalia Larina biked 10-20 kms a day.  Photo by Sophia Perez
Russian political activists turned asylum-seekers Denis Uvarov and Natalia Larina walk outside of the former Kagman detention center where they are being housed, unable to legally work or even have visitors in their quarters.  Photo by David Butterfield

I had seen them before, and Saipan readers will probably recognize them as the athletic blonde couple that bikes together across all corners of the island. Their two bicycles were among their only possessions (one has broken since our interview). They were a gift from someone who knew their situation and wanted to help.

“We had some small savings and we have lived very modestly for almost a year,” Uvarov explained. “We have no money for the internet, therefore for communication with our relatives we look for places with free Wi-Fi. We look for places we can get free drinking water… We are frequent guests of the Salvation Army.”

After Yutu, their situation became dire. Their apartment building was destroyed and their few possessions soiled. They even lost their credit and debit cards. Now they live in the Kagman shelter, biking regularly to their old apartment in San Antonio to check on their three cats.

Uvarov said it wasn’t until they arrived in Saipan that he and Larina realized the CNMI’s asylum laws were different than those of the rest of the United States. Janet King, local immigration attorney and member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, was kind enough to explain the difference:

“Section 208 of the INA [Immigration and Nationality Act] provides for an application for asylum for people who are fleeing their countries and seeking protection in the United States from persecution due to race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion,” she said. “Unlike the rest of the United States, including Guam, no one who finds themselves in the CNMI is eligible to apply for asylum until after Dec. 31, 2029.”

Uvarov and Larina were also ineligible for refugee status, which is only available to applicants located outside of the United States. Desperate, the couple met with Immigration and Customs Enforcement or ICE, where they reported their situation. ICE then confiscated their passports for reasons unclear to Uvarov and Larina, making it impossible for them to travel off island. They were told that their paperwork would be sent to California and that in the meantime they would just have to wait — potentially for years — until their status was decided.

Uvarov said that until they hear back, he and Larina have no means of legal employment and are ineligible for federal aid. “Our task is to survive.”

Hostile to refugees

According to Maya Kara, another local immigration attorney and member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, “The United States government is really hostile to refugees and asylees.”

She said that Uvarov and Larina may have better luck filing a Petition for Withholding of Removal, a limited form of relief that grants the petitioner protection from being deported and makes him or her eligible for some forms of federal assistance, but offers no pathway to a green card or citizenship.

“It is a shield, not a sword,” Kara said. “It’s a very complicated application and they are only eligible if they’re already in deportation proceedings.”

Kara is herself a political refugee from Hungary; she was a child when her family fled to the U.S. after a failed uprising against Soviet rule. She said that it was this past hardship that led her to take on a Chinese dissident who fled to Saipan some years ago. That was when Kara learned that ICE would need to serve her client a Notice to Appear or NTA in immigration court for her client to have a chance to pitch her case to an immigration judge, who could then order a Withholding of Removal.

“So I talked to ICE. I said, ‘She doesn’t have status and she’s in Saipan, can you put her in removal?’” she remembered. “They said, ‘We’re not going to put anybody in removal just so they can claim a U.S. immigration benefit.’”

By refusing to initiate the removal process, ICE effectively doomed Kara’s client to Larina’s and Uvarov’s same status limbo, a policy that Kara described in a single word: “Odious!”

Uvarov and Larina’s final option is to seek protection under the Convention Against Torture or CAT, a U.N. treaty to which the U.S. is a signatory. It requires that the petitioner prove that there is a “clear probability” that the person will be tortured if returned to their home country. This is a very rare form of relief offered to less than three percent of applicants.

“I have not had a client who met the qualifications for CAT,” Kara said. “I know there are some attorneys on Saipan who are filing for this form of relief but I don’t know of a single one that has succeeded.”

Kara’s client was denied her day in court during the Obama administration. Now that Trump is president, Kara says that immigration law is being interpreted even harsher than before.

“There are a lot of ways in which immigration authorities have gotten tougher since Trump’s been president,” said Kara. “I get daily updates from [the American Immigration Lawyers Association] about various new, stricter interpretation of the immigration laws nationwide.” 

And according to NPR’s Deborah Amos, the United States is accepting fewer refugees than ever; 22,491 refugees were resettled in the U.S. in fiscal year 2018, fulfilling only half of the 45,000 cap. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced last fall that 2019’s maximum will decrease to 30,000.

With record low refugee admissions dropping even further and refugee status becoming more and more difficult to obtain, it’s hard for many potential refugees to understand why the U.S. bothers to offer refugee and asylum status at all.

“They say, ‘We can help you, but be homeless for five years,’” Uvarov said. “This is hypocrisy.”

As long as taking sanctuary in the U.S. remains a carrot on a stick, America may be more of a trap than a haven for foreign refugees and asylees. And that’s a rude awakening for expatriates seeking political freedom in the land of opportunity, particularly in Saipan.

“This is not only about us,” said Uvarov. “This is a systematic defect in the CNMI.”

“The CNMI and USA celebrate Thanksgiving Day,” he added, frustrated. “Who were the pilgrims? Refugees and asylum seekers.”