Some immigrants sour on plan for path to citizenship in immigration reform bill

The World

Mark Khazanovich, left, and his father, Alex, are immigrants from Russia who now live in Arizona. They object to a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. (Photo by Jude Joffe-Block.)

If Congress overhauls immigration laws, undocumented immigrants may be offered a path to citizenship.

But not everyone agrees with that, and some of those in the opposition are immigrants themselves. 

An immigration reform bill similar to the one passed this week by the Senate is likely to be taken up later this year in the House of Representatives — offering undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship. But it is certain to face tough opposition.

On a recent evening in Tempe, Arizona, Alex Khazanovich plays the piano with his 24-year-old son, Mark. The elder Khazanovich learned to play the piano as a child in the former Soviet Union. There wasn’t much on TV there.

“In the old country we only had two channels on the TV and they didn’t show anything worthwhile,” he said.

But life was difficult under Soviet rule for Jewish families like his. When he was a teenager, Alex Khazanovich headed to Canada with his parents. Then, an engineering job brought him to the United States, and his young family, including his son Mark, settled here in Arizona in the 1990s.

“I think the United States is a country that is much more free and conducive for people to exercise their individuality and freedom of expression,” said Alex Khazanovich, now 50 years old with a full beard. He became a U.S. citizen after a long process. So now, when he’s asked about immigration reform, he’s concerned that the bill the Senate approved includes a path to citizenship for people who came here illegally.

“It is just wrong to disregard when people do something that is against the law,” Khazanovich said.

He says his philosophy is rooted in his intense patriotism for his adopted country.

“One of the reasons we always saw America as the bastion of freedom because of our belief that our laws are fair and that they are fairly applied to everyone,” he said.

His son Mark, who became an American citizen as a teenager, agrees.

“I think it would marginalize the experiences of the hundreds of thousands if not millions of people who have immigrated to this country legally, including my family,” he added.

His father qualifies his statement some, saying he doesn't want to throw people out of the United States.

“But we do not want to reward those who figure they will bypass the process that is in place,” he explained.

Both men say that instead of a path to citizenship, immigrants in the country without papers should get legal permanent residency. It’s a fair compromise, they argue.

“If I was living in a terrible country, I would much rather have the option of living in America and not vote, then not live in America. I think that side is not often made,” said the younger Khazanovich.

But he adds his position is not always easy to articulate.

“People are quick to assume that if someone doesn’t support this bill, then, you know, they are labeled as racist or bigots, or things like that,” he said.

Mark Khazanovich also says he doesn’t want to risk being misunderstood.

“For, me it is not an issue of a person’s ethnicity or race, but it is just the principle,” he said. “It wouldn’t matter to me what country they are illegally trying to immigrate from. I don’t believe in illegal immigration.”

And yet, the Khaznovichs say they don’t see a place for themselves in the most visible grassroots efforts that oppose illegal immigration. Those groups, they say, tend to be more hostile to unauthorized immigrants than they are comfortable with.

“A lot of them talk about exclusion and deportation and all those things and I think there are a number of reasons why that is not a good option,” said Alex Khazanovich. “We have neighbors and friends, who I don’t ask them about their immigration status, but I don’t want to see them being deported.”

His son says he's seeking a middle ground.

"I think these groups, obviously they care about this issue, but I feel like they are more on the extreme side. And I think that there’s a middle ground that is not only compassionate but is fair and, you know, a more realistic approach,” he said.

As the debate over immigration reform continues, it’s still unclear whether this middle position the Khazanovichs agree with will emerge.