A protest for the American Dream
SMSU international student joins ‘A Day Without Immigrants’ protest
MARSHALL — Nikolay Ivanov believes he has a thoughtful and heartfelt message that resonates with millions of Americans across the country.
Ivanov hails from Russia and has been an international student at Southwest Minnesota State University since August 2014. Along with being a devoted husband and father, Ivanov is a very committed computer science student. In fact, he’s never missed a single class — until Feb. 16, which was dubbed “A Day Without Immigrants.”
“Since my very first day at SMSU, never have I missed or come late for a class, meeting, on-campus job or volunteering event I signed up for,” Ivanov said. “It was very hard for me to cut a class. I felt I would miss something. ‘A Day Without Immigrants’ wasn’t a super-large event — maybe because of the lack of organization or fear of getting fired — but I didn’t care. I did what I believed was right.”
Ivanov emailed SMSU professors Tom Williford (history) and Doug Simon (political science) to inform them of his upcoming absence and to assure them that he planned to take “total personal responsibility for whatever credit and opportunity” he would miss in class.
“By no means does this letter aim to shirk my responsibility as a student to attend classes I am registered for,” Ivanov said. “As a person who has a dream of becoming an American citizen one day, I feel obliged to peacefully support what I believe is right, even if I am alone. Today, in many large cities in the United States, immigrant workers and students will ‘disappear’ for one day to protest against the growing hostility towards immigration. So I am not participating in any academic, social or commercial activity.”
The day of protest brought together immigrants from all walks of life — primarily in large U.S. cities — to show what life would be like without foreign-born workers in the American economy. The nationwide strike was held in response to President Donald Trump’s immigration agenda, which includes a travel ban on seven Muslim-majority countries in addition to a promise to build a wall between the U.S and Mexico.
“I am proud to protest alone in Marshall for those men and women who, like the ancestors of most people who now call themselves Americans, left everything behind and arrived to the New World, with or without documents, voluntarily or not, to pursue their American Dream,” Ivanov said. “I am proud to support the people who just do their best for their families and simply have no choice. I am also proud to protest for the refugees who want their children not to be killed in a war.”
“I am protesting for the humanity and equality, the cornerstones of all the world religions and modern societies. Today, I am with the people who know the true and tough meaning of what the American dream truly is.”
Ivanov said standing up for rights is a very “American thing.” But he also said protests need to be non-violent in order to gain respect.
Ivanov said he can relate to being born in a country he did not choose.
“I know how it feels to grow up in a society whose ideals and patriotism you don’t share,” he said. “I know how it feels to be unable to leave your country simply because you have no money. I know how it feels to be saving money for 14 years just to be able to study in a country you love wholeheartedly with a hope to increase the chance to stay in it permanently. I know how hard it is to stay for years in limbo, in which you neither belong to the nation of your origin, nor yet are accepted by the nation of your dreams.”
Ivanov said he didn’t expect any special reaction. Ivanov did receive support from his professors.
“Nikolay’s peaceful protest is very American and the cornerstone of a free people,” Simon said. “That tradition originates in the First Amendment, where it provides that people have ‘the right . . . to peacefully assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.’ With that said, I support Nikolay like I would support any other person or group that has a cause to address unfairness in our democratic system.”
“Whatever political stripe one is, conviction toward a cause, whether pro-life, pro-gun, pro-education — pick your ‘pro’ — is healthy for our system, and I encourage more young people to be engaged and seek change when the system is unresponsive to their cause,” Simon said.
Williford said Ivanov is extremely knowledgeable.
“He clearly keeps up with world and national news, which we discuss in every class. Nikolay was the only one in a class of 40 to know the names of both of Minnesota’s U.S. senators, and most of the other students are native Minnesotans,” he said.
Ivanov admits that since early childhood, he’s read “tons” of books on history.
“The history of humankind has some sort of evolution going on,” he said. “This evolution always brings up some challenges for the society. The challenge that it brings for society now is diversity.
“It’s my personal opinion that throughout its history, the U.S. faced those challenges — through pain, through many different turmoils — and managed to choose the right things. It actually goes back to 1776, when it established a democracy in the New World. Then it was the Civil War, followed by the Suffrage Movement and then the Civil Rights Movement. Now it’s diversity.”
Despite the enormous divide taking place in America right now, Ivanov is optimistic about the future.
“I believe it’s a pivotable point for the United States,” Ivanov said. “If it chooses the diversity, which I strongly believe is the spark of the evolution — it’s the way to go — it will go into a new round of prosperity, a new period.”
If diversity is rejected, Ivanov said he believes the country will suffer.
Growing up in Russia
Ivanov was 7 years old when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Ivanov said he always felt like a tourist.
“It’s a nice country, a beautiful country, and there are awesome people,” Ivanov said. “Russia never did anything bad for me. I grew up in a very good family. But I never felt myself belonging to this culture even though I love it.”
He was skeptical of the Russian media, which he feels spreads propaganda.
“I just never bought the stuff,” he said. “Maybe it was something I was born with. I always remember myself having this intrinsic embedded-in-me sense of freedom that protests against anything or anyone who wants to tell me what I should do or think or love or whatever.”
Ivanov also opposed the stereotyping and discrimination in Russia. The Gypsies are especially treated with hatred throughout the country.
As a result, Ivanov realized he needed to find somewhere to call home.
“I conducted huge research, everything possible I tried to find, and I found this place is the United States,” Ivanov said. “I’ve been in the United States for three years now and each and every day since my plane landed here, I’ve felt at home.”
Ivanov is in the U.S. legally as an international student. To continue staying in the country, he would have to find a job. That still does not guarantee his stay.
“The number of applicants for H1B visas is about four times larger than the number of visas available,” Ivanov said. “How do they choose who to give the visa to? Randomly. It’s lottery. So after my graduation — even though my GPA is almost 4.0 — I still have a 25 percent chance of staying. So I’m feeling in limbo. I don’t belong to the country I’m from, but I’m not rooted here yet either.”
While Ivanov’s wife is Russian, their son is a citizen because he was born in the U.S. Fortunately, Ivanov was able to bring his family with him as he pursued his academic degree. He’s found Minnesota to be a welcoming environment.
Ivanov explained the immigration process and what options he has in the future.
“If it’s immigration through employment, it’s a work status (work visa),” Ivanov said. “Visa is just the document that is used while crossing the border. Once I cross the border, what I have is my status. For example, when I finish my study and I find a job — and I’m lucky in the lottery — I can change my status into H1B, which is a work status. Then there is other stages– permanent residency, which is the green card, and then citizenship, which is what I’m hoping for. It’s a very long road, but I’ll do my best.”
Ivanov will have an opportunity to work as part of optional practical training.
“It’s a post-graduation chance to work for some time in the United States,” Ivanov said. “It’s kind of like a post-graduation internship that I can do without obtaining the work visa. The Obama administration prolonged it to three years, which would significantly increase me chances of getting the work visa, but Trump will probably cancel it. It may roll back to one year. I can apply for a work visa just once a year in April. I will probably only have one, maybe two, chances to apply.”
According to Ivanov, countries such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand have better immigration systems.
“It allows people to set a goal. They use the score system. Ways to get those points include knowing English, education and having a work offer. I think it’s a fair system. It’s good for their economies because it allows them to draw talented people,” he said.
Ivanov said Obama tried to push for a similar immigration reform, but it didn’t pass.
“My first bachelor’s degree in Russia is in municipal management,” Ivanov said. “It allowed me to work and study at the same time. I have always been an IT professional. I love programming and stuff. I know flying back to Russia, I will find a job the same day, and it would be a good job, but that is not the place I want to spend the rest of my life. There are too many people who completely don’t share my view of the world.”
Past and present
Ivanov said he admires Williford for promoting diversity.
“Instead of just providing information, like historical facts, he talks with people and draws those parallels between past and present,” Ivanov said. “It’s a wonderful thing. Professor Williford tries his best to do something with historical amnesia that people are subjected to. People very quickly forget what happened in the past.”
For this reason, students are expected to read “Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland,” by Christopher Browning. It’s a shocking account of how ordinary Germans became cold-blooded murderers of thousands of Jews.
“The author of this book — I was crying reading this book — tries to go under the skin of those people to understand the reason for them to accept this assignment,” Ivanov said. “How did they justify what they did? It was very interesting that we can draw parallels with what is happening now. Back then, they said ‘Jews are taking our jobs.’ Now, ‘immigrants are taking our jobs.’ “
On Page 57, Ivanov said the book reveals that the men actually had a choice, and only a dozen of them decided to step up.
“Those that stepped out, they did not receive any punishment,” Ivanov said. “They were just reassigned. What’s interesting, later in the book, we learn that they didn’t want to look like cowards or chickens.”
Ivanov added that the murderers continued lying — even after 20 years.
“These men were pretty much policemen that were temporarily embedded into the Army infrastructure,” he said. “They denied they had any choice. The book describes how they decided to kill women and children. They perceived it as a technical dilemma, not a humane dilemma.”
Ivanov is quick to point out that he doesn’t think the U.S. conflict will end up with mass murder, but there are similar vibes.
“It’s the same sort of attitude, the same sort of energy, which always results in some sort of discrimination, and maybe violence,” he said. “The idea of denying dreamers and the separation of children from parents — and forceful separation — it’s hard.”
Two characteristics are necessary to earn Ivanov’s respect for an individual.
“I don’t care what side people are on — Republicans, Democrats, Independents — as long as they just meet the minimal requirements for humans: to be humane to people and be a critical thinker,” he said. “This nation was established on those principles — something we read in the U.S. Constitution, Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights, saying if we stick to basic principles, everything else will be sorted out.”
Finding the truth
While he stops short of making predictions, Ivanov said he relies on two things: education and truth.
“What I proved to be very efficient is education,” Ivanov said. “Reading books like this. Reading reliable sources. Reliable sources show the truth. And the truth is on our side. This is where to dig.”
According to the Bureau of Labor statistics, there were about 26.3 million foreign-born people working in the U.S.in 2015, making up 16.7 percent of the workforce. But fewer are undocumented — the number of unauthorized immigrants living in America hit a seven-year low in 2014 — according to the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.
“The problem with diversity is that it’s true that immigration affects the job market,” Ivanov said. “There’s a huge debate about this. Some people say it improves the job market, but some say no.”
Despite misconceptions otherwise, foreign-born workers also pay income taxes — more than $100 billion annually. The U.S. economy relies upon the labor of immigrants, especially in agriculture and construction businesses.
“It’s true that some immigrants are criminals,” Ivanov said. “We are all people — we are human beings — and some of us, no matter what group we belong to, are prone to criminal activity. But does it justify discrimination? If we treat everything we feel uncomfortable with, if we always push away people, it’s not the evolutionary impulse of the history.”
Ivanov admits he was a bit disillusioned when he first came to the U.S. But he still very much believes in this country, he said.
“I very much love this country, and I still truly believe that the people of the United States — who are the source of power will make the right choice,” Ivanov said. “It’s just a painful time. This country has experienced several periods of difficult times. I love this country even more for the struggles because people are making the choice — through pain, through inconvenience, through really difficult choices — and being exposed to a lot of buzz about all the discriminatory information.”
Ivanov isn’t sure what to believe about the possible connection between Trump and Vladimir Putin.
“Usually, all the news coming from the Russian government are the results of the actions that they have already done. What’s interesting, the Trump administration seems to be similar to Russia’s.”
Ivanov said his development and values come from his grandmother.
“My grandma was 11 when World War II started in Russia — this is the period of history that the Russians refer to as ‘The Great Patriotic War’ from 1941-1945,” he said. “She always emphasized the importance of peace, and not allowing the war to happen. I learned this lesson from her. The only thing I don’t want is World War III.”