We need to get rights right for international students

It’s a learning curve like no other—being a stranger in a strange land means international students must manage cultural challenges as well as academic rigor.
By: | January 27, 2021
Getty Images, mirsad sarajlic

Imagine for a moment that you’re young, ready to prove yourself and on the doorstep of your dream school. It’s nervy and thrilling, and it’s all just beginning for you. Until it isn’t. Instead it’s undone because an official presented you with a piece of paper and you signed it.

Shams Vahedi, Michigan State University

Shams Vahedi, Michigan State University

That’s what has happened to numerous students across the country. Students follow all of the necessary rules and proper regulations and measures set out by the U.S. Embassy, and arrive at the border with all of the necessary documents to enter this country and pursue their education. Then, without realizing the impact, a student signs a form presented by the Department of Homeland Security or is subjected to unjustified questioning and is immediately deported back to their home country despite obtaining a valid visa.

It needn’t happen.

But so many students aren’t aware that they can have an attorney present when their visa status is challenged. We need only look around at the present situation to understand that it is incumbent upon us to educate international students, not just in their chosen fields of study, but about their rights in this country.

The facts are this: Many international students arrive here feeling prepared, only to find unanticipated hurdles and challenges. They might not know what documents they need and are uncertain how to best cooperate and interact with officers at the border. The situation can be overwhelming under the best of circumstances, but certain students have been forced to navigate additional scrutiny under the current administration. International students can hope a Biden administration will simplify the process, but any such changes would take effect after the spring semester begins, at the earliest.

The current challenges created under the Trump administration will stand, until adjusted, and they do not seem random, but rather correlated to nations of origin. Those students that come from countries where the government might be at odds with the U.S. government, such as China, Iran and other Arab countries, seem to encounter more problems.

For instance, the largest shares of international students in the United States stem from India and China, both countries that the Trump administration targeted with immigration and Visa restriction. These acts have had a negative impact on the views international students hold of the U.S. as an academic option. In the wake of COVID-19, the situation has worsened, with Chinese students, in particular, facing border control interrogations for alleged technology theft and other unfounded claims.

The slings and arrows don’t lessen for international students beyond border control. These young people are not only thrust into essentially a new world where they must keep up their academic standards, they are left with powerful questions about their rights—to protest peacefully, to earn money, and more recently, to stay in this country if they can’t safely go to class.

Fear of the unknown

Though the Trump administration’s plan to strip international students of their Visas if they did not attend classes in-person — a mean feat when distance learning was becoming a necessary norm—did not come to fruition, it was a strong bellwether for life as an international student in 2020.

If the coronavirus crisis has made life unpredictable for most Americans, it’s made the situation even murkier for foreign nationals. The deep uncertainty around the pandemic and its implications, new and evolving policies and what administration will control those policies has resulted in a pronounced lack of clarity for international students.

While foreign policy has always had an impact on the international student experience, the global impact of COVID-19 and the tendencies of the current administration have created a sense that international student experiences are subject to fluctuate as rapidly as the country’s foreign affairs. Unfortunately, for many international students, that anxiety hasn’t been matched by an understanding of the complexities of the U.S. political system and the factors that most impact their experience.

The elections this year have won the attention of the world and represent a crucial point in the plans and hopes of current and incoming international students. The travel bans and shifts in international relationships of the past four years often left international students in the lurch, uncertain of how their status in the United States might shift from day-to-day and understandably fearful that their Visa status being thrown into question—or worse—could prevent them from completing their education. While the incoming Biden administration creates reason for hope among international students, the ultimate outcome is not known. Nor is it understood how long it might take for meaningful change to be made with a raging pandemic and pressing economic situation sure to be at the forefront.

Combating a chilling environment

Wherever the next administration and policies land, the most troubling truth is that we cannot and will not understand the impact of the fear and discomfort of this year until next year. For instance, as Patty Croom, director of international admissions at Michigan State, points out, we won’t have clarity until next year as to how many overseas freshmen the university will lose.

Op-ed on internationals: 'The most troubling truth is that we cannot understand the impact of the fear and discomfort of this year until next year. We won’t have clarity as to how many overseas freshmen the university will lose.' #higheredClick To Tweet

The why behind that is simple—many freshmen who deferred enrollment this fall still plan to enroll in the spring, presumably pending the outcome of the election and the state of the coronavirus pandemic. We now have election results, but that result came during a week (Nov. 2 – Nov. 8) when the average number of new cases in the United States each day was 111,175.

In the fall of 2019, Michigan State welcomed 8,570 freshmen, about 7 percent of them from overseas. We can only wait and hope that number doesn’t decrease. International students contribute tremendously to our campus. They bring diverse perspectives to our classrooms and community. And what’s more, they bring some of the rest of the world to our relatively small town. Most people in our community have not traveled overseas, so our international students contribute materially to the opportunity we have to expand perspectives and create more inclusive mindsets. Our campus is better for these students and it’s time we do better by them.

Higher education has responded, now must rally

When the higher education community comes together to defend and support our students, we can achieve extraordinary change. Take for instance the aforementioned and short-lived directive to strip international students of their Visas if they did not attend at least some in-person classes. Some 20 states and the District of Columbia, as well as nearly two dozen universities, took to the courts and filed lawsuits to block the policy change. The result was an abrupt reversal—a victory on behalf of our international students.

Even with an incoming Biden administration that’s likely to be a better steward of international student relations, we need to remember the spirit of that moment and continue to advocate to ensure the last four years aren’t prescriptive of the next four years. We also need to continue to do what we do best and educate international students, even before they arrive here, so they can begin their journey informed and aware of their rights, rather than as strangers in a strange land without a guiding hand.

Shams Vahedi is the immigration advisor at Michigan State University and a GAISA Advisory Council Member.