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ICE has reversed its policy, but international students still need support

I’m a former international student. While it’s been comforting to see people support us this past week, it’s frustrating that it took a visa crackdown for our struggles to be visible.

ICE has reversed its policy, but international students still need support
[Illustration: Payal Pereira]
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I recently moved back to India after seven years as an international student on a F-1 visa, with the feeling that I left the U.S. just before things got worse. I could have never anticipated how true this would be. 

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The past few weeks have felt surreal. USCIS, the immigration agency which manages all visas, is running out of money, green card printers have been shut down, and the Trump administration has suspended all work visa applications until 2021. To make things worse, ICE announced that international students whose schools are going online-only due to COVID-19 would be forced to transfer or leave the country. Thankfully, the Trump administration decided on Tuesday that they would rescind this policy, but this past week has been an emotional roller coaster. I’ve been constantly thinking about my international community and all the people whose lives have been impacted.

While it’s wonderful that the policy has been reversed, enormous damage has still been done.”

While it’s wonderful that the policy has been reversed, enormous damage has still been done. The government has shown us how far they will go to push us out, and it’s hard to imagine what might happen next. We uprooted ourselves for the hope of a better life, but after all we’ve fought for, we’re still facing a world of unknowns.

But despite the stress and confusion, it has meant the world to see people mobilize in our defense. Over the past week, there was a huge outpouring of support: petitions to stop the #StudentBan and #AbolishICE, scripts to call your representatives, professors offering independent study courses, university-led town halls and initiatives like Support Our International Students where U.S. students could donate their seat in an in-person class to an international student, allowing them to avoid potential deportation. 

Frankly, I’ve been surprised to see so much advocacy for international students when, until now, many of us have felt invisible, undervalued, and misunderstood. People don’t know very much about what we go through, but it gives me hope to see that they are finally trying to understand.

Now that we aren’t under immediate threat, I hope that we can continue the conversation about how people can support us. Universities were quick to condemn ICE’s decision and file lawsuits, but there’s so much more they could be doing.   

For one, they could start by reducing tuition. International students pay up to three times as much as Americans for college, with the understanding that they are investing in the value of a foreign degree, a campus experience, and the opportunity to work in the U.S. after graduation. Now, with the uncertainty caused by the pandemic, there’s no guarantee that students will have any of those benefits.

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It’s telling that much of the recent discussion has focused on proving the economic value of international students, in the same line as the business case for diversity, as if students aren’t people, but profit. By defending international students because of their wealth, we dehumanize them and imply that low-income and undocumented students aren’t worthy of our support because they don’t protect the bottom line. 

These actions sit within a larger context of violence from ICE toward undocumented communities. It’s unfair that widespread support is being given to internationals, which was powerful enough to reverse a federal policy, when people and institutions have become desensitized to the needs of undocumented people and similar laws like the Asylum Ban. It’s important that we don’t lose this momentum and keep fighting for justice for all of us. 

As international students, we’re constantly explaining our experiences, assimilating to minimize our differences, and reading up on American cultural references, so we don’t seem out of touch. Impostor syndrome reaches a new level when you’re international. We also have to filter what we say and how we behave, because we’re always confronted with the fear of being deported. 

By following visa restrictions, we also limit our own opportunity. As a student on a F-1 visa, you can only work on campus during the school year, can’t freelance for money, and need to pay to accept internships and write essays to legally register them as course credit. Once we graduate, we’re not eligible for most fellowship or scholarship programs (which have a citizenship requirement). We also have to reassure recruiters that we’re not a liability, and manage the constant stress of staying employed, so we don’t get deported.

When we explain this, people sometimes downplay our experiences and indignantly tell us that “we knew what we were signing up for,” even though many of us couldn’t have anticipated how the system would edge us out. After seven years on my F-1 visa, I’m very grateful and learned a lot in my time, but didn’t realize until I left that I had been simplifying myself for survival. With only a few international friends in New York, it was hard to remember where I came from and lean into my international identity, even when I needed it the most.

Now that people are paying attention, it’s important to continue standing up for us—even when we’re not in the headlines. You can support us by learning more about other cultures, asking about our experiences, and giving us the same energy that you offer to inclusion efforts. Our schools need to prepare us for the professional and legal limitations we face in the real world, from job discrimination to the employment restrictions of our visas. We’re often left to learn through our mistakes and fend for ourselves. 

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We also need to hold our companies accountable for hiring and retaining international talent, and providing access to sponsors and mentors. Our companies must train recruiters on how to fairly screen international candidates, enroll in systems like E-Verify (which allow us to work for them), teach our managers about visas so they can advocate for us, and make sure our visa status isn’t used to immediately disqualify us from being hired, promoted, or invested in. 

We are treated like a burden because we come with paperwork—even though we usually do it ourselves.”

There is a lot of fear because people don’t know very much about us and are scared to ask, which leads to structural barriers where we are underpaid, othered, and spoken for. We are treated like a burden because we come with paperwork—even though we usually do it ourselves. Because of this, we don’t have equal opportunity for all that we’ve sacrificed to move to a country where we were promised freedom. We need your help to get there. 

We endure so much just to exist, but through it all, I’m proud to be international. We may feel powerless, but we have more power than we think. Everything we’ve been through has made us brave, resilient, and taught us how to be our own best advocates. We’re reconsidering what we’re looking for, receiving support from people around the world, and learning that we don’t have to idolize a country that doesn’t want us. We’ll figure it out because we’ve always had a Plan B—and a Plan C, D, and E. Now it’s time to activate them. It was never going to be easy, but we’ll make it through.


Nayantara Dutta is a writer, strategist, and third culture kid. You can find her @nayantaradutta.