Policing Immigrant Workers

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Two years ago, I wrote a column about perverse relations between Russia's immigrant communities and the police. At least 5 million illegal migrants, mostly from other former Soviet republics, work at construction sites, do low-paid manual labor or engage in legal businesses and commerce as well as a variety of shadowy activities.

Too many of Russia's police officers are corrupt, venal and racist. In addition to illegal immigrants, non-Slavic immigrants -- and even Russian citizens of different ethnicities -- are in danger of being stopped, harassed and shaken down for bribes by uniformed officers.

Small wonder that when immigrants fall victim to crime, the last place they tend to turn is the local police station. Instead, they buy protection from tough guys in their own communities. Even when the authorities genuinely attempt to fight crime, immigrants don't make good allies. They rarely volunteer information about unlawful activities, nor are they eager to testify against their own.

Ethnic mafias plague most immigrant communities, benefiting from isolation, distrust and fear. Disdain on the part of the indigenous population contributes to the problem. In the United States, which has been dealing with large-scale immigration for 150 years, the police have learned from their mistakes. Needless to say, even at its worst, the law enforcement establishment in the United States never even came close to the level of corruption found in modern Russia. But its harsh policing methods usually proved counterproductive. Successive waves of immigrants, ranging from the Irish, Jews and Italians in the 19th century to Hispanics more recently, felt hostility and fear toward the police, greatly complicating the task of fighting crime. The same remains true of many black communities.

But by the time Russian Jews began arriving to the United States in the mid-1970s, the attitudes among police officials were already changing. It took only a couple of years for the precinct in charge of the Brighton Beach neighborhood, where many Russian emigres settled, to get its first Russian-speaking cop. The rise of the "Russian mafia" was not prevented, and criminal gangs still took root in the community. But greater openness on the part of the police has made fighting various traditional crimes, such as protection rackets and extortion, considerably easier.

In Russia, community outreach as practiced by the New York City Police Department seems inconceivable in general -- especially in relation to the immigrant community. Even during the time of prosperity, dreadful policing methods and social attitudes were tailor-made for the spread of ethnic mafias. The current economic crisis could unleash a crime wave and leave in its wake an entrenched infrastructure of ethnic organized crime.

Russia's unemployment rate remains low, and labor shortages endured until very recently. But the labor market is skewed, largely thanks to a vast army of government bureaucrats and the legacy of the planned economy on which the market system has been grafted. The labor force is unwieldy, immobile and unproductive. Over the past decade, the influx of guest workers -- both legal and illegal -- helped smooth the cracks in the economic system. This workforce, by contrast, is highly flexible, inexpensive and efficient. Unfortunately, it is also the one that will suffer most in any economic downturn.

There have already been media reports about the loss of jobs in Russia's construction industry, with thousands of immigrant workers being thrown out into the street. With so many of them coming from desperately poor and war-ravaged countries, they have no place to go. Given the corruption and inefficiency of the country's bureaucracy, deporting them will be difficult. But in the absence of legal jobs, it is easy to guess what kind of activities they will be drawn to.

Alexei Bayer, a native Muscovite, is a New York-based economist.