MOSCOW– The group of men were gathered by the side of the highway and quickly converged on any car or van that came to a stop near them.
A quick discussion of professions (bricklayer, woodworker, etc.) and salary (usually from $40 to $60 for the day) ensued before a few men hopped into the car, considering themselves lucky enough to have found a construction job for the day.
|Yonatan Pomrenze / NBC News|
|Day laborers wait for jobs on a highway outside of Moscow.|
It was a scene that would look familiar to anyone following the debate over illegal immigration in the United States, but the highway was just outside Moscow and the undocumented workers were mostly from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
There are many parallels between the immigration debates in Russia and the U.S. Immigrants here make the long journey from economically struggling homelands with few job opportunities, to a neighboring country where jobs seem plentiful.
Russia's steadily growing economy has attracted millions of undocumented workers. Most are from neighboring, former Soviet countries in central Asia and the Caucasus, and their work is helping to keep Moscow's exploding construction boom going.
While politicians in the U.S. discuss different immigration reform plans, Russia has already taken steps to implement one. Earlier this year, the government adopted a plan that simplifies the Russian bureaucracy (not a small task) for immigrants to get official registration as a guest worker and placed a quota on the number of immigrants allowed to work in Russia.
In theory, the plan is a huge step forward. In practice, though, things haven't worked out so smoothly.
'The police are all bandits'
Eshon Abdujalul, 25, left Tajikistan six years ago and described his first two years in Russia as "working like a slave for someone in the mafia, until he was killed."
Eshon eventually made his way to Moscow and now waits outside the construction market by the highway with 50 to 100 men every day waiting for jobs. When asked about the new immigration regulations, he said that registration "can't be done – it can only be bought."
Farid, who like many was wary of giving his last name, echoed the same sentiment and said one word that I heard used by almost every person on that highway: "Bandits! The police are all bandits, a gang. All they understand is money."
Everyone had a story of being stopped by police and having to give up their day's salary to avoid being arrested. One man told of a friend whose documents were in order, but the police didn't care. They drove him to an alley and gave him a choice – payment or problems.
Local youth enforcers
But now, it's not only the police the immigrants have to worry about. On a recent Saturday, a nationalist youth group called Mestnie ("Locals") decided they needed to do their part to stem the tide of illegal immigration.
Posing as potential employers, they drove cars to the highway with job offers. After picking people up, they drove them straight to the immigration authorities for their documents to be checked.
Two days later, a spokesman for the Federal Migration Service praised the group's actions in bringing in over 70 immigrants, saying that they "really helped and can be useful."
Eshon was warned of the sting by a friend who had been taken, but saw others who were not so lucky. "Two men who were caught tried to jump out of the van, right onto the highway," he said. "One got hit by a car."
Left with little choice
When asked why they returned one week later to the same place, all the men simply shrugged and said there was no choice – they have to work.
Most of the immigrants agreed that if given the chance, they would like to play by the rules and apply for legal status. But when faced with corrupt police and an immigration service that applauds people taking matters into their own hands, they feel they have nowhere to turn to solve their problems.
In the meantime, though, they know jobs will keep coming to the highway. If all the illegal immigrants disappeared overnight, Eshon said "Nothing would get done, no one would work, the markets would close, and all of Moscow and Russia would be full of managers and no workers. How can they get anything done without workers?"