I came to the U.S. from Russia when I was 11 years old. At the time, the Soviet Union was falling apart, the door to leave was wide open, and anyone of Jewish descent did their best to get out before it shut again.
The Russian government sponsored anti-Semitism throughout the region and the Middle East from the time of Tsar Alexander II. When the Communists took over, there was a pause in the policies, but since the Russian people were already brainwashed to hate Jews, the policies soon returned and stayed until the early 1990s.
Jews were never considered to be Russians in the Soviet Union. They could not get the same jobs as Russians or go to the same higher education institutions. Ironically, they could not leave the country, either, even though they were not wanted there.
Immigration was on everyone’s mind; people started to leave as soon as it was possible. “Possible” is an important distinction — it was illegal to leave Russia without permission, and it was illegal to enter another country without permission. We were taught about sovereignty of countries, respect for borders, and how serious a crime it was to cross the border. Murder was a lesser offense than crossing the border illegally; murderers ended up in jail or in a gulag, but people who crossed the border were sentenced to death.
To immigrate to the U.S., you had to submit an application to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and wait approximately two years for a response. If they decided all was in order, and you did not have a criminal background, they would invite you for a medical exam and an in-person interview.
Much of this application process was conducted in secret. There was a lot of hatred toward people who were trying to leave, and there were cases of some immigrant families being killed before they could depart. Many times, it was because someone found out that they had cash on hand after selling their possessions, and sometimes it was because even though they were not considered Russian, they were still viewed as traitors.
Traveling to the embassy was a monumental ordeal. My family had to travel nearly 500 miles by public transit and on foot. The trip was not easy; my father had recently suffered a heart attack and my parents were traveling with two young kids — one rambunctious and one who had an intellectual disability.
My parents had to navigate rooms filled with thousands of potential immigrants, and stand in line with their two young kids for a whole day. There was no air conditioning. People sat on the floor or leaned on columns and walls, holding themselves up so they would look well enough to pass the medical evaluation and would stay awake for the face-to-face interview.
With a lot of luck, we passed everything and came to the U.S. My parents immediately found low-paying jobs doing physical labor during the day. At night, they attended a local community college to learn English. Somehow, they still found time to spend with their family and run the household. English is the language of success, and to be successful in this country you must speak it and speak it well.
My parents made a point to integrate themselves, my sister, and myself into American culture and society. We were always told that America is the land of opportunity, but we knew that no opportunity comes free or as a handout. My parents did not go on welfareor receive government assistance when they immigrated, even though we were only allowed to take $300 with us to the U.S. for a family of six people. They worked full time, advancing through the years.
When they saved enough, they attended Rutgers University, and paid for it out of pocket. They went on to get multiple degrees, paying for everything themselves or taking on large loans. Eventually, that education gave them the opportunity to get the good jobs they hold today.
The U.S. and the American people do not owe anything to any immigrants, including the immigrants from the southern border; they can ask for help, but they should not expect a guarantee that they will get it. The problems and hardships of living in a certain place are the responsibility of the people who live there, not the U.S. The U.S. should not police the world, but the U.S. should also not take in everyone when the un-policed countries start to fail.
The Jews who ran away from Russia gladly settled in any country that took them. Not everyone was accepted to the U.S.; those who weren’t went to Europe, Israel, and many other countries just to get out of Russia. Russian Jews, who were extremely anti-German after World War II, even settled in Germany.
Additionally, there is a huge difference between what my family went through and what the immigrants at the southern border are going through now. We were not considered countrymen in the country we were born in. We were systematically persecuted — and in some cases killed — because of our religion. The people coming here now are not facing anything like that. Their countries are poor and have high crime and murder rates, but so do many other countries in the world. If someone is being prosecuted and fears for his or her life, or if he or she has a needed skill, an application through the U.S. Embassy in their country might get them legal passage to the States. If it is denied, they can seek to emigrate elsewhere — or stay in their country and try to fix it, be it through civil action, government reform, or revolution.
If the media really cares about immigration, they shouldn’t be talking about separating children, which has been done by law since 1997; they should talk about how to secure the border. If there was no way to get in illegally, I don’t think most of the people who come now would try to cross it in the first place.
Maxim Serebrennik grew up in New Jersey after immigrating from Russia in 1992. His career started in West Point Military Academy developing virtual reality simulators. After moving to Arlington, Virginia, he now works at Leidos, where he is a contractor for the Navy.
By Maxim Serebrennik
In his spare time he attends Adas Israel and Sixth & I in DC, and runs DruzyaDC activities.