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Kyrgyz Communities in the United States: Beyond Myths and Stereotypes

«The links between Kyrgyz diaspora and the old country are complex, but it is hard to deny that its contribution is significant for economic development of Kyrgyzstan. Therefore, development of diaspora institutions both within the government and in the civil society merits consideration», – Ajar Chekirova, PhD candidate at the Department of Political Science at the University of Illinois in Chicago, wrote in her article for cabar.asia. 

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Hundreds of thousands of Kyrgyz citizens currently live, work, and study abroad. While majority of research and policy reports tend to focus on labor migration to Russia because, indeed, it is the number one destination for majority migrants, Kyrgyz diaspora is a growing community in Europe and North America. Central Asian migrants in general and Kyrgyz diaspora specifically represent a distinct community of people with multiple intertwined identities: Asian, post-Soviet, and Muslim.

In recent years migration has been a fiercely debated topic both in the United States and in Kyrgyzstan. The Trump administration repeatedly tried to limit both formal and irregular migration, especially from majority-Muslim and South American states. Although proposals of Muslim “travel ban”[1] and US-Mexico border wall[2] have been challenged by US Congress and the Supreme Court, the overall political rhetoric in the White House suggests that attempts at restricting migration, principally from developing countries are likely to continue.

While at the US-Mexican border families seeking refuge and asylum are separated, their children detained and kept in cages; in Kyrgyzstan, political activists are accused of purposefully staging protests in order to apply for asylum in the United States. Immigration policies that reunite families by granting visas to spouses, children, and parents of American citizens were blamed for so-called “chain migration”[3] by conservative politicians and their supporters in the US, while back in Kyrgyzstan, women who marry foreigners are targeted by ultra-nationalists and accused of forsaking the Motherland and “contaminating the gene pool”[4]. Hence, political and popular discourses in both countries reveal deeply negative connotations associated with distinct modes of migration.

Kyrgyz migrants usually settle in major American cities, such as New York, Chicago, or San Francisco. Source: kyrgyzclub.org

In academic literature, Kyrgyz immigrant communities were discussed in Dr. Saltanat Liebert’s book (2010) “Irregular Migration from the Former Soviet Union to the United States”, which primarily focused on labor migrants from Central Asia and Caucasus, particularly Kyrgyzstan and Georgia. More recently post-Soviet diaspora was analyzed in Dr. Claudia Sadowski-Smith book (2018) “New Immigrant Whiteness”, where the emphasis was put on racial constructions of post-Soviet migrants, particularly Russians and Ukrainians, who are presumed “white” and as a result they are associated with American immigrant dream of upward mobility regardless of their legal status. Following this line of thought, it can be argued that Central Asian migrants similarly benefit from being associated with East Asian migrants, who are stereotyped as hard working and high achieving “model minorities”.

However, in American news media, although Central Asian migrants make rare appearance, when they do, it is often connected to crime and terrorism. For instance, last year, local news broadcasted that Kyrgyz taxi driver was charged with sexual assault in Chicago.[5] In 2017 a man born in Uzbekistan, who later resided in Kyrgyzstan appeared in news, as he was responsible for a terror attack in New York. [6]In 2013, Kyrgyz-American brothers were identified as Boston Marathon bombers.[7] As a result, the image of Central Asian immigrants is often linked with terrorism, as is also the case with other Muslim immigrant communities.

In this paper I will discuss diverse migration paths from Kyrgyzstan to the United States and development of Kyrgyz diaspora in American cities. This article attempts to illustrate migration not as a story of fake documents, illegitimate asylum claims, racial prejudice, or precarious jobs, but as a narrative of community building, support systems, and complex relations with the homeland.

Overview of Migration from Central Asia to the United States

Migration flows from Central Asia to the United States started in early 1990-s after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when due to dire economic conditions coupled with freedom to travel, those who had the financial means and the opportunity to go to North America often chose to stay there long term in hopes of a better life. This first wave of Central Asian migrants consisted mostly of professional class, i.e. highly-educated individuals, such as doctors, college professors, and bureaucrats, who had to settle for low-paying unskilled jobs, such as construction, childcare, and other areas of informal service sector.[8]

Between 1999 and 2017 over ten thousands of Kyrgyz migrants became lawful permanent residents in the United States. This number incudes those who immigrated through Diversity Program (“visa lottery”), family-sponsored and employment-sponsored categories, as well as refugees and asylees who were able to adjust their status. Migration trends presented in Figure 1 demonstrate that employment-based “green cards” are quite rare, less than 50 individuals per year immigrate to the US under this category. Spouses, children, and, to a lesser extent, parents of American citizens represent the majority of people immigrating from Kyrgyzstan to the United States, followed by diversity immigrants (winners of the “visa lottery”) and refugees/asylees.

Between 1999 and 2017 approximately 50.000 Kyrgyz citizens were admitted to the United States in nonimmigrant status, which means they may stay in the country only temporarily. Majority of these temporary visitors arrived in the US for tourism or business travel. The number of people in this category increased sharply between 2010 and 2017. Students and exchange visitors, such as participants of US Department of State Educational programs (e.g. FLEX, Muskie, Fulbright, Humphrey, etc.) represent second largest group of nonimmigrants. However their numbers fell rapidly between 2011 and 2017. The number of diplomats and government representatives travelling to the US with official visits has been steady for the past 20 years. Artists, athletes, entertainers, investors, and intercompany transfers comprise a very small fraction of nonimmigrant admissions from Kyrgyzstan.

Figure 2: Kyrgyzstan citizens admitted to the United States in nonimmigrants categories

When it comes to immigration from Central Asia, particularly from Kyrgyzstan, to the United States, one of the most sensitive and controversial topics is asylum. It has been argued that it is the most common way of immigrating to the United States “even if nothing threatens them at home”.[9]  US Homeland Security statistics, however, tell us otherwise. Firstly, it is not the most common way of obtaining lawful permanent residency. Family-based migration and, in the past five years, Diversity Program are more likely routes to immigration. Secondly, patterns of asylum petitions and approved cases correspond with political and social upheavals in Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia. Taking into account that until very recently (just a few months ago President Trump enacted a set of reforms to speed up asylum applications review process), it took on average 6 years to have an asylum application reviewed. This means that spikes of asylums granted to Kyrgyz citizens in 2010-2011 relates to applications filed in 2005, and another spike in 2015-2016 relates to applications filed in 2010.

Looking at Figure 3, it might seem that individuals from Kyrgyzstan apply for asylum in much larger numbers compared to similarly populated, but much more authoritarian Turkmenistan. However, this can be explained by the fact that asylum applications must be filled out at the port of entry or within the territory of the United States. Restrictions imposed on international travel in Turkmenistan limit people’s abilities to apply for asylum. In Kyrgyzstan, in contrast, democratic freedoms, such as rights to assemble, carry out demonstrations, freedom of artistic expression, and freedom of movement are coupled with politically motivated prosecutions, widespread violence against women and LGBT community, and social intolerance of ethnic and religious minorities – and all these are legitimate grounds for seeking asylum. Therefore, arguing that asylum claims of Kyrgyz citizens in the US are illegitimate is not only inaccurate; it is dangerous. Especially in current global political climate, where refugees and asylees are constantly vilified, academic and journalistic discourse needs to be factual and responsible.

Figure 3: Asylums granted to Central Asian applicants

There are, undoubtedly, also a significant number of undocumented migrants from Central Asia. Most of them are out of status because they overstay their nonimmigrant visas. Considering that there are currently 12 million undocumented immigrants in the United States (which represents almost 4% of the overall population), undocumented migrants from Central Asia, and Kyrgyzstan specifically, represent a tiny fraction of this number. Twenty years ago Kyrgyz migrants, like others from the former Soviet Union, mostly worked as nannies, elderly caregivers, construction workers, and taxi drivers. These jobs, certainly, are still being filled by migrants, but nowadays it not surprising to find immigrants from Central Asia, who are successful entrepreneurs and business-owners in diverse range of economic activities from transportation to food service. They also pursue various high-skilled professions, such as financial services, real estate, information technologies, and software engineering.

Kyrgyz Diasporas in American cities

Kyrgyz migrants usually settle in major American cities, such as New York, Chicago, or San Francisco. That is due to several reasons. Firstly, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles are known as “sanctuary cities”, which means that local law enforcement do not fully cooperate with the federal government, specifically United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement, in locating, identifying, and deporting undocumented immigrants. Since local police departments are not required to assist the federal government in matters unrelated to crime, police officers do not see catching undocumented immigrants (who did not commit any crime) as their priority. [10]Moreover, enforcing immigration laws can have negative consequences for the actual police work: finding and catching criminals if immigrant communities refuse to report crimes or cooperate with police investigations for the fear of being deported.[11] Secondly, ”sanctuary cities” are attractive to immigrants from all over the world, including Kyrgyzstan, not only because local law enforcement does not purposefully seek out unauthorized migrants, but because these also happen to be the most economically prosperous places in the country that offer many work and business opportunities.

Migrants of the same national or ethnic origin tend to cluster in certain geographic areas because it allows newcomers navigate economic and social landscape of the unfamiliar place through informal migrant networks. Finding work and housing is easier in a city or in a neighborhood that has one’s compatriots. Thus, migrants of various ethnic and national origins build ethnic communities in urban neighborhoods, where they surround themselves with familiar language, food, and culture. Chinatown in New York, Koreatown in Los Angeles, Japantown in San Francisco, Ukrainian Village in Chicago, Arab neighborhoods in Detroit are just few examples of ethnic neighborhoods in American cities. Although there is no Kyrgyztown out there, but Kyrgyz immigrants also gather in certain neighborhoods like Russian-speaking Brighton Beach in New York or on Chicago’s North Side.

Chicago is arguably the most popular destination for Kyrgyz immigrants. Its relative affordability and abundance of economic opportunities make it an attractive place to build a home and a community. Despite being recent newcomers to Chicago, Kyrgyz immigrants have already been able to create a tight-knit community. For example, they established a Kyrgyz Community Center that hosts a variety of events from holiday celebrations to educational and cultural gatherings. Restaurants, such as Jibek Jolu and Bai Café serving traditional Kyrgyz dishes, are very popular among Central Asian and local American customers. Kyrgyz immigrants use these places as gathering space to preserve and practice their culture, traditions, and maintain interpersonal connections within the community.

Restaurants, such as Jibek Jolu and Bai Café serving traditional Kyrgyz dishes, are very popular among Central Asian and local American customers in Chicago. Source: http://jibekjolu.us/photogallery/

In addition, virtual space, such as social networks and phone apps provide another platform for interaction. Kyrgyz immigrants use online communication tools, such as Whatsapp, Viber, and Telegram to create discussion groups. In these groups members talk about a wide range of issues: asking for recommendations in finding a doctor, a hairdresser, a lawyer, or other kind of service provider, selling used furniture or cars, looking for housing or roommates, or sharing other important information – all within a trusted network of Kyrgyz diaspora. Entrepreneurs use these chartrooms to advertise their products and services such as catering, shipping, and beauty services, while members provide reviews and feedback.

Kyrgyz diaspora in American cities have a complex and multidimensional relationship with the homeland. Similar to Kyrgyz migrants in other countries, they regularly send money back to their families. The remittances are often used to purchase property and fund education for those left behind. Indirectly, Kyrgyz migrants in America and elsewhere in the world, prop up construction, real estate, and other thriving big businesses in Kyrgyzstan. In addition, many Kyrgyz-American immigrants engage in philanthropy. For example, they have been very active in collecting tens of thousands of dollars in charity donations for medical treatments of children and adults back in Kyrgyzstan.

Especially for the holiday of March 8, the Kyrgyz Community Center in Chicago has organized a festive event for mothers and grandmothers located in the United States. Source: Instagram page of Kyrgyz Community Center in Chicago – kyrgyz_community

Conclusions

In sum, people from Kyrgyzstan migrate to the United States for a variety of reasons and through different channels. Some immigrate to build a family or get reunited with family members who are already in the US; others simply tried their luck in Diversity Visa Lottery; and then there are those who just needed a fresh start and an opportunity to live without fear and prejudice. A significant fraction of Kyrgyz migrants remain undocumented, although the exact numbers are unknown. With recent crackdowns on both legal and illegal immigration, many immigrants including Kygyz are in precarious situations constantly looking for ways to secure their immigration status.

Despite difficulties they might face due to adaptation to new language, as well as social and cultural norms, Kyrgyz immigrants have created vibrant communities in American cities. While integrating in American way of life and absorbing its norms and values, Kyrgyz immigrants continue to preserve their own culture and maintain informal networks of mutual support using both physical spaces and gatherings as well as online communication systems.

The links between Kyrgyz diaspora and the old country are complex, but it is hard to deny that its contribution is significant for economic development of Kyrgyzstan. Therefore, development of diaspora institutions both within the government and in the civil society merits consideration. Countries like Mexico, China, India, the Philippines, and Brazil (among dozens of others), having a large number of their nationals working and living abroad, have successfully established multiple diaspora institutions at various levels of government: ministry, sub-ministry, and local level.[12] Diaspora intuitions may have different goals and priorities, but they ultimately boil down to transfer of financial and human capital. The task of diaspora institutions is to develop polices that can encourage investments from the diaspora and incentivize return of young experts. Kyrgyz diasporas in North America are still in their nascent stage, but considering the sheer numbers of people migrating westwards, now is the time for the state to start thinking about the possibility of diaspora institutions and their potential role in Kyrgyzstan’s economic development.


This article was prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project implemented with the financial support of the Foreign Ministry of Norway. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial or donor.


[1] https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/06/27/us/politics/trump-travel-ban-effects.html

[2] https://www.cnn.com/2019/03/17/politics/trump-border-wall-immigration-problems/index.html

https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2019/apr/9/donald-trump-says-obama-put-children-cages-wont-re/

[3] http://enews.fergananews.com/article.php?id=1332

[4] https://kloop.kg/blog/2018/10/04/smotri-shlyuha-s-inostrantsem-idet-kak-kyrgyzstanok-stydyat-za-otnosheniyami-s-muzhchinami-drugih-etnosov/

also: http://enews.fergananews.com/article.php?id=1332

[5] http://enews.fergananews.com/article.php?id=1332

[6] https://www.nbcnewyork.com/news/local/Gunshots-Fired-Lower-Manhattan-Tribeca-454316613.html

[7] https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2013/04/19/177942712/about-the-brothers-suspected-in-boston-marathon-bombing

[8] Liebert, Saltanat, Stephen E. Condrey, and Dmitry Goncharov, eds. Public administration in post-communist countries: Former Soviet Union, central and Eastern Europe, and Mongolia. CRC Press, 2013.

[9] https://cabar.asia/en/endless-stream-of-kyrgyz-refugees-to-the-us/

[10] https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2018/3/8/17091984/sanctuary-cities-city-state-illegal-immigration-sessions

[11] https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/8/18/16130954/police-sanctuary-cities

[12] https://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/committed-diaspora-more-developing-countries-setting-diaspora-institutions