According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, in 2012, about 52,000 Alaskans were born outside of the United States. The organization estimates that a quarter of them are here without authorization, some because they came as children and had no way to get documents. The Alaska Institute for Justice is highlighting some of their stories and the contributions immigrants are making to the community through their event “Justice Beyond Borders.”
One of the storytellers is Maxim Mamontov, who moved to Alaska from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s when he was just 13 years old. He says everything seemed so different.
“A lot of things you guys have here, I didn’t have as a kid. They existed but they weren’t as widely spread. Computers. VCRs. Cars.”
Mamontov says life here was better, so his family decided to stay. He says a few years after arriving, his parents applied for permanent residency. But it took more than seven years for the application to be processed. In that time, he graduated from West High School and the University of Alaska-Anchorage, and he became too old to be part of his parents’ application. But by this point, Alaska was his home.
“When I step off a flight in Anchorage, I feel like I am home,” he explains. “You know, that weird feeling where it feels like you arrived, where it feels right.”
So he got a job as an auditor and was given a work visa. And that’s where it gets tricky. He had the visa, but he had to travel outside of the United States to a consulate to get it fully approved. He decided to go to Russia to visit the woman who is now his wife.
When he went to get his final approval, “the consulate denied it, basically telling me that I was in the U.S. illegally during my previous stay,” he says.
Mamontov wasn’t allowed to return to Alaska.
Robin Bronen with the Alaska Institute for Justice says she doesn’t know the specifics of Mamontov’s case, but stories like his are pretty common because of 20-year-old immigration laws.
“If you are in the United States without immigration documents for more than year and you leave, even if it’s to visit your loved one, and you try to re-enter, you will be barred for 10 years,” she explains.
She says this applies to people who came as children without a choice, too. Though Pew estimates there are 15,000 unauthorized immigrants in Alaska, Bronen says it’s hard to really know. “Because we’re talking about people who are terrified about making their existence known here.”
When Mamontov graduated from college, even though he didn’t have long-term documents, he wasn’t worried about people knowing he was in the United States. He thought that with his work visa in place, leaving and coming back wouldn’t be a problem. But he was stuck in Russia for seven years trying to fight his case.
“People are saying taxes are complicated. Immigration is… I don’t know, multiply that by 10.” Mamontov is an auditor and working toward his CPA.
He considered different options for coming back. Friends suggested he marry a US citizen. But he didn’t want to break any laws. During his seven-year wait in Russia he got married, worked, bought property, had a child. He considered giving up the fight.
“I’m not gonna argue. I’m not gonna put up a fight anymore because I’m getting old to a point where I have to figure out what to do with the rest of my life. So I cannot be in this suspense for another seven years or five years, so I think this is it.”
Mamontov decided to try one last time to return to Alaska. His employer applied for another work visa, he found the right lawyer to argue the case, and in September he returned to Anchorage. He says it was hard decision to leave his wife and six month old son, but this is his home. His family may soon follow.
The Justice Beyond Borders storytelling event is Friday night in Anchorage at the Taproot.