The Volokh Conspiracy

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Russian Dissenters Fleeing Putin Often Face Abusive Immigration Detention Upon Arrival in the US

Such mistreatment is both unjust in itself and harmful to US economic and foreign policy interests.


In my last post, I highlighted David Bier's helpful summary of the major ways in which the Biden Administration has improved immigration policy. But one area where Biden has fallen woefully short is the treatment of Russians fleeing Vladimir Putin's increasingly repressive dictatorship. A recent New York Times article reports that Russian political dissenters who enter the US to seek asylum are often subjected to prolonged and cruel detention:

As Vladimir Putin cracks down on dissidents and arrests draft dodgers, growing numbers of Russians are making their way across the U.S. southern border. But contrary to their expectations of asylum and freedom, many of them are being put into immigration detention centers that resemble prisons….

Everyone who touches American soil has the right to claim asylum, though it is granted only to those who can prove they were persecuted in their home country based on their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.

Many asylum seekers are released and allowed to argue their cases later in court. But thousands are sent to detention centers, where it is difficult to secure lawyers and collect evidence, and the chances of winning asylum are extremely slim….

"Proportionately, compared to people from other countries, there are more Russians being sent to detention," said Svetlana Kaff, a San Francisco-based immigration lawyer who said she has been flooded with requests for help….

[M]any said they had come to the United States thinking they would be welcomed as allies in America's push for democracy in Russia and Ukraine.

Olga Nikitina, who fled Russia with her husband after he was imprisoned there multiple times, spent five months in the same facility as Ms. Shemiatina. "The whole time I was there, they treated us like garbage," said Ms. Nikitina, 33. "I called hotlines, but it did not help in any way…."

Ivan Sokolovski, 25, another activist, has been held at Pine Prairie for seven months. He recently lost his asylum case and said he fears that he will be deported to his death. "It would have been more humane to be shot dead at the border than to be held in prison so long," he said….

Russian asylum-seekers interviewed said they have been at the mercy of guards who treat them with indifference and, not infrequently, hostility….


Conditions in immigration detention centers are sufficiently bad that one Russian dissenter who experienced them told the Times that "I came to realize that I had left Russia for a place that was just like Russia."

Without more extensive data, it is not clear whether Russian asylum seekers are subjected to especially bad treatment because of their nationality, or whether they are "merely" being subjected to abuse at same rate as other asylum seekers. But, either way, the situation is unconscionable.

The ultimate solution to the plight of asylum seekers to is a major general liberalization of immigration policy that would make the process of entering the US legally much easier, more accessible, and faster. But even within the confines of the current system, there are many more humane alternatives to prolonged immigration detention.

In previous writings, I have explained in some detail why opening Western doors to Russians fleeing Putin is the right policy on moral, strategic, and economic grounds (see here, here, and here). Doing so would simultaneously rescue people from horrific oppression, promote US economic growth and scientific innovation, deprive Putin of valuable manpower, and give us a leg up in the the international war of ideas against Putin's regime. The case has been furthered strengthened by Putin's "partial mobilization" order, which subjects hundreds of thousands of Russians to the grave injustice of conscription for the purpose of waging an unjust war. The main beneficiary of US mistreatment of Russian refugees is Vladimir Putin, who can use it to bolster his claims that the West is hostile to Russians, as such.

I have also criticized the argument that we should bar Russians because they are responsible for the war in Ukraine. The same goes for the more general claim that citizens of unjust regimes have a duty to stay home and "fix their own countries."

Because I am a Russian Jewish immigrant myself, some may suspect that I am advocating for Russians fleeing Putin out of some sort of ethnic or racial sympathy or bias. Not so.  I have also long advocated for openness to Ukrainian refugees, as well. In a previous post, I listed some of my extensive writings advocating for opening Western doors to predominantly non-white groups of migrants and refugees. Since then, I have also written this piece on the case for opening Western doors to Chinese fleeing their governments cruel "Zero Covid" policies and other repression.