AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The United States is the only country grappling with immigration reform. Russia is facing immigration issues, as well, and for many of the same reasons. Millions of migrants from impoverished former Soviet republics are now working in Russia, mostly in low-wage jobs. Some of those workers are in Russia illegally and are exploited by their employers. And a growing number of Russians fear that the influx of migrants, many of whom are Muslim, is changing the face of their country.

NPR's Corey Flintoff reports from Moscow.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN)

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: It's 3:30 in the morning when the train from Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, pulls into Moscow after a four-day journey. The passengers hauling their bags out onto the damp, ill-lit platform are mostly men. Russian police eye the new arrivals with suspicion.

Every day, trains and planes arrive from Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Belarus, and other former Soviet republics filled with migrants looking for what they can't find at home - steady work. They are not always welcome.

MAYOR SERGEY SOBYANIN: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: Sergey Sobyanin, Moscow's mayor, says the capital is a Russian city, not Chinese, Tajik or Uzbek, and it should stay that way. He's campaigning for re-election this fall with a promise to limit the influx of foreign workers.

In a recent opinion poll, more than half of Muscovites said the number of migrants in the city is a problem. Some worry that Muslims from central Asia will spread religious extremism. And many say migrants don't understand Russia's customs or speak the language well.

ALIK: (Through Translator) I didn't even know how to say bread. But little by little, you can learn. I watched TV. I played on the computer. The rest came over time. You can meet girls. To be honest, girls teach you quickly.

FLINTOFF: That's Alik, who, like many migrants, travels back and forth each year to his home in Uzbekistan, where he has a wife and two children. He works as a house painter and shares a room in Moscow with two other men. Life is good in Russia, he says, as long as you have your documents in order.

For illegal migrants, though, the risks are high. The authorities frequently conduct raids where migrants live and work.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAW)

FLINTOFF: This upload from the video-sharing website LiveLeak shows police sawing through metal walls to break into a basement complex, hidden beneath a market in Moscow.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOUTING)

FLINTOFF: They rousted out almost 200 people, most of them from Vietnam, who had been working in a sweatshop full of sewing machines.

Citizens of most countries in the former Soviet Union can enter Russia without a visa. But repeated violations, such as staying too long or failing to register, can get them barred from returning for up to 10 years.

Despite the uneasy relationship with foreign workers, Russia needs them, just as much as they need jobs.

YEVGENY GONTMAKHER: Of course, we have a big problem - big needs for our labor market.

FLINTOFF: That's Yevgeny Gontmakher, an economist who studies migration. He says Russia, like many European countries, is dealing with a decline in its working-age population. But he also says Russia's migration policy isn't working. The number of migrants officially allowed into Russia is low, which creates opportunities for bribery.

GONTMAKHER: Corruption among our policemen, corruption among our federal migration service, it's a big problem.

FLINTOFF: He says the Russian government needs to support economic development in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and other poor former Soviet republics.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAILWAY AMBIENCE)

FLINTOFF: But until conditions improve at home, migrant workers are bound to be a constant presence in Russia. Back at Moscow's Kazansky rail station, Tajiks are preparing for the long journey to Dushanbe. For many, it will only be a short break before they return to work in the Russian capital.

DAOUD: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: Daoud, a 28-year-old Tajik, has a different plan. He's getting off the train at Astrakhan, a city in Russia's south, where he has legal work at a car wash. He came to Moscow hoping for a higher salary in construction, but went home empty-handed after a week on the job. It was off the books and he says the boss found an excuse not to pay.

Daoud sends money back to his family in Tajikistan, but he told his younger brother to stay home. He says working in Russia isn't worth it.

Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Moscow.

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