Greek economic crisis could bring a wave of new migrants

Pensioners holding their queue numbers try to enter a bank in Athens.
Pensioners holding their queue numbers try to enter a bank in Athens.
Daniel Ochoa de Olza/AP

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As Greece struggles with economic chaos, some Greek Americans have been hearing pleas from relatives and acquaintances back home: Get us out.

“It’s heartbreaking. I get emails asking me to help them find a job, they will do anything," said Shelly Papadopoulos, who heads the Greek Heritage Society in Los Angeles.

The organization formed three decades ago to assist Greek immigrants back then, and today serves the region's roughly 50,000-strong Greek diaspora. Papadopoulous said many Greek families in Southern California put down roots here between the 1950s and 1970s.

She said that in recent weeks, her email in-box has been overflowing with messages from people in Greece who know of the organization and are seeking advice on how to come to the United States.

"These are professional people," Papadopoulos said. "It just breaks my heart because they want to leave so badly. They have lost their jobs, they have families.”

Papadopoulos replies to them that to work and live in the US legally, they’ll need to obtain the proper visas.

Officials from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said they had yet to see an uptick in immigrant petitions from Greece, but that there are other ways for them to enter the U.S.

Greek nationals may enter as tourists without a visa under a waiver program, so long as they intend to stay short-term. They may also enter on non-immigrant visas like student and work visas.

Ashley Garrigus with the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs said that since the agency only releases data on non-immigrant visas granted - not applications - it's hard to quantify any recent uptick in interest. Because of this, "there isn't a very good comprehensive snapshot" of whether more Greek nationals are yet arriving, she said.

Papadopoulos said if the desperation they express is any indication, it wouldn't surprise her if some take their chances coming as tourists and staying. She warns them about the rules.

"I reply that my heart aches for them," she said. " I understand, I have family back there. But unless they have a proper work visa or a green card, or an employer that is going to sponsor them, there is really nothing I can do."