From Tourists to Asylees
Russian Citizens in Guam
By Dr. Christopher Rasmussen
Assistant Professor of History, University of Guam
Abstract: When the US Department of Homeland Security decided to admit Russian visitors to Guam without a visa in 2012, it seemed to be a happy convergence of US foreign policy and the desires of local political and tourist industry leaders. The policy added to the Obama administration’s “Russia reset” and paroled relatively free-spending Russian tourists for 45-day visits. Two years later, however, events in Russia led to a sharp decline of overseas travel and a rise in political repression. As one of the few places Russian citizens could travel without a visa, Guam became a lifeline to hundreds of Russian asylum seekers. The plight of these migrants reveals the cruelty of federal immigration policies, the extent to which Guam is subject to the vagaries of US foreign policy, and how Guam has welcomed these new arrivals and how they have adapted.
Beginning in the fall of 2020 around two dozen Russian citizens seeking asylum in Guam began gathering for irregular weekend rallies. In September, outside the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office across the street from Home Depot, protesters demanded the resumption of video hearings, which had ceased in May 2019. Without hearings, those seeking defensive asylum could not apply for work authorization. The fall rallies came as the Pacific island territory was recording some of the highest rates of new COVID-19 cases in the United States, underscoring the protesters’ determination and despair. Organizer Egor Elkin had arrived in Guam in March 2019 and, unlike many of the protesters, had been working for months. He said he was lucky. “Some people live on the beach,” Elkin explained. “Some people had to live in container units – no air conditioning. Some people get arrangements with local people for a room and help out [around the house].” By the end of 2020, a handful of asylum-seekers were contemplating hunger strikes to prod the United States Customs and Immigration Services (USCIS) to process their claims or for Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) to allow them to board flights to the mainland. While the emergence of a semipermanent population of sometimes desperate Russian asylum seekers has caught local attention, a deeper history grounded in Guam’s relationship to the United States has yet to be examined.1
For examples of local interest in the stories asylum seekers’ plight and political activities, see John O’Connor’s multi-part series in the Guam Daily Post, John O’Connor, “Russian Asylum Seekers Plan Hunger Strike,” Guam Daily Post, Feb. 21, 22, 23, 2021.