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After 7 years of bureaucratic limbo, Alaskan stuck in Russia finally returns home

  • Author: Suzanna Caldwell
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published August 22, 2015

Max Mamontov loves order. It's why he loves his job as an accountant, where he takes the relative chaos of business transactions and turns them into something understandable.

But one thing the Russian national who grew up in Alaska couldn't find order -- or even answers -- in was his struggle to legally enter the United States.

Mamontov spent seven years attempting to work his way through the H1-B visa system to legally work in Alaska. What began as a misinterpretation of U.S. immigration law sent Mamontov's residency status into the bureaucratic depths of the U.S. visa system, ultimately keeping him barred from entering the U.S. for years.

Mamontov found himself stuck in "administrative processing" -- a black hole of the U.S. visa system where he couldn't gain any information about the status of his reentry into the United States. It's a quagmire that many attempting to enter the country find themselves in, though Mamontov's attorney, Diane Butler, noted that his situation represents an extreme case.

Mamontov said numerous attempts to email, call, write letters and even visit the U.S. Embassy in Moscow -- a 300-mile, 12-hour train trip each way from his home in Cheboksary -- never led to any progress or updates on his situation.

But after years of silence, Mamontov finally learned this summer that his visa had been approved.

Mamontov, 38, returned to Alaska Wednesday morning and was greeted by his father, Vladimir, who became a U.S. citizen in the years since his son left, and his friend Jeff Landfield, who spent years helping Mamontov navigate the legal system.

Despite the effort to return, Mamontov felt a sense of bittersweet completion in the airport Wednesday morning. He said that if his arrival had been five years earlier, things might be different.

"Five years ago I would be ecstatic. I'd be screaming and jumping up and down" he said. "But right now, I'd kind of given up.

"I thought they would forget about me," he said.

Coming to Alaska

In 1991, when Mamontov was 13, his family came to the United States during the collapse of the Soviet Union. His father got his green card and Mamontov was allowed to stay under an F-1 student visa, graduating from West High School and later the University of Alaska Anchorage with a degree in accounting.

After graduation, he began working at Altman Rogers & Co., a local accounting firm.

With plans to stay in the U.S., Mamontov applied for political asylum in 1997. Butler said the applications can take years to process, but during that time people can remain in the U.S. indefinitely. Mamontov's years-long process was first denied in 2003 and the judge ordered him to leave the country within 60 days. Mamontov appealed the decision, which allowed him to stay in the U.S.

Not knowing what the long-term status of the asylum appeal would be, he applied for the H1-B work visa, which was approved by immigration services in 2008. With that and appeals pending, Mamontov decided to visit Russia and Ukraine. Assured by his attorney he would be able to return, he left for what was supposed to be a one-month vacation in April 2008.

Getting stuck

When he tried to reenter the country, the State Department denied his visa. Butler, his attorney, said the hangup occurred when a department official incorrectly interpreted a statute to determine that Mamontov had been in the U.S. illegally. Such a decision would deny him entry back into the United States for at least 10 years.

It was that decision that sent Mamontov's file into "administrative processing."

Butler said the status sounds innocuous but it's far from it. There's no time frame on how long a case can remain in that status and no way to check to see if the case is being dealt with.

"Once that misinterpretation occurs, you get caught in the web and it becomes hard to extract yourself," Butler said.

Mamontov said he would try to contact the consulate at least once a month at the beginning, but after getting little to no information, he grew frustrated. After 18 months, the visa was officially denied.

With that, Mamontov went back to his daily life in Russia, but he never stopped wanting to get back to work in Alaska. So in 2012, he applied for another H1-B visa. U.S. Immigration Services again approved it, but when it came time for him to actually get the visa, it was again thrown back into administrative processing.

His friend Landfield, a current candidate for the state Senate, said he worked diligently to bring attention to Mamontov's case during this time, contacting the entire Alaska congressional delegation and working on his own to contact the State Department. Mamontov even granted him power of attorney.

But as Landfield dug into the system, nothing seemed to dislodge the visa. The situation motivated Landfield to become an immigration advocate.

"On some level, he helped me, so I want to help him," he said of his friend. "But on another level, it's so frustrating to experience a system that day in and day out keeps screwing people."

Breaking free

Mamontov said it was the work of Margaret Stock, a noted immigration attorney and MacArthur "Genius Grant" recipient, that finally managed to shake free his visa from the holds of the system.

He's not sure exactly what made Stock's work different from the previous attorneys'. He thinks maybe the way she phrased it made more sense to officials, but he's not sure.

Butler, an immigration attorney based in Seattle, didn't know, either. She said she's seen a few others dislodge themselves from the system recently.

"Maybe there has been some quiet policy announcement that State Department wants to clear out these files," she said.

In an interview last week, Stock declined to speak specifically to Mamontov's case, citing confidentially, but said people often get trapped in the system for months or even years. She said the law is so complicated that even officials in charge of understanding it can misinterpret statutes.

"It's a law that's so complicated that people don't understand it, members of Congress don't understand it, senators don't understand it, Donald Trump definitely doesn't understand it," she said. "And the people who do understand it get attacked for trying to make the system work better."

Ultimately, the return home is bittersweet for Mamontov. His life took a different turn, he said. Things were good in Russia. He married and now has a 6-month-old son. He just bought an apartment in a Cheboksary high-rise complex.

But he was frank about why he decided to come home: Opportunities for accountants in Russia are limited and he was bored. His wife and son will join him in America soon. After everything, he's not sure if he'll try to obtain permanent residency in the U.S.

He has to immediately reapply for another H1-B visa, since the long delay means the visa now expires at the end of September. But for now, he's just taking everything one year at a time.

"Life takes weird, interesting turns," he said. "And it took one for me."