Published: July 25, 2020
Written: July 23, 2020
On July 6, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced a set of new guidelines for the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) that would significantly affect the status of nonimmigrant students in the United States. The guidelines indicated that international students who are enrolled in programs that are entirely online for Fall 2020 “must depart the country or take other measures,” while others that are not currently in the United States will not be issued visas to return to their American college or university. On the same day, President Donald Trump sent a letter to the United Nations, officially announcing the United States’ withdrawal from the World Health Organization (WHO), beginning a one-year process of withdrawal. One day after the ICE guidelines were released, Harvard and MIT announced a lawsuit against ICE and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, requesting a temporary restraining order on the guidelines and arguing for the policy to be ruled as illegal. Many other universities including Yale soon backed the lawsuit. The U.S. government announced that they would rescind the policy during the lawsuit’s first hearing on July 14. Even though the ICE guidelines were withdrawn within a week, by rejecting foreign scholars and withdrawing from the WHO America sent a clear message to the world: the land of freedom will not be shared by everyone.
As an international student who has been studying in North America for seven years, the news about the July 6 guidelines made me laugh in shock and disbelief. Although Yale students would not have been directly impacted by the policy, because Yale has adopted a hybrid model of teaching, this announcement hit too close to home. I was shocked that my stay in this country would now be completely dependent on the tenuous option of working on my academics in-person in Rudolph Hall, let alone the fact that other “less lucky” students would have no choice but to leave the United States. During that brief week of panic, I was one of the luckiest international students in this situation because it seemed like I had taken all the “right” steps along the way. But how did we come to a place where our legal status is dependent on luck?
The immigration status of international students should not be reliant on universities’ safety measures or fickle public policies, because students have no control over these circumstances. Harvard University President Lawrence Bacow stated in an announcement that “the order came down without notice—its cruelty surpassed only by its recklessness,” and that this “bad public policy” should be ruled as illegal. Earlier in June, both President Trump and the Acting Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security expressed their wish for academic institutions to reopen in the fall, despite the CDC’s warnings against it. The governmental pressure to reopen quickly and completely threatened to disrupt universities’ existing reopening plans, jeopardized thousands of international students’ academic and career paths, and ignored the health and safety of all those students who would have been deported, forced to travel internationally during a global pandemic. The government’s policy disregarded the interests of its own educational system and of the one million international scholars in the country. Such a policy does not send a good message to the world.
With the popularization of the American Dream and a reputation as the “Land of Freedom,” the United States has always been successful in attracting international talents. But ICE’s new guidelines damaged the credibility of the United States on a global scale, by showing that the government will revoke its own immigration policies with minimal consideration of the impacts. Aside from health concerns, the policy placed immense pressure on incoming students who had been admitted to American institutions but were now facing the possibility of abandoning that plan entirely. They went through lengthy application processes and expensive foreign examinations, they managed to obtain approvals from instructors, local and overseas, and they committed to academic and career paths according to the rules set by the United States government. Thousands of international scholars did all of this because of the promise of opportunity, equality, and freedom. Yet the ICE policy revealed that these values and protections can all be nullified overnight—the commitment means nothing when the ones who set the rules are not committed. This sense of insecurity is now more present than ever, and will likely be here for a while. The invisible fence that draws the line between aliens and Americans is made visible again, and used as a political tool.
I wanted to acknowledge the existence of that fence but I chose to believe that it does not apply to me because I have “proven my worth.” For me, the image of America has always, at least on the surface, projected open arms and a welcoming smile. But I do also know the fence well—so well that I don’t see it anymore. As an international student, I am not blind to the subtle hints that “You’re not part of our community.” As a student in North American higher education, my contributions in group projects have often seemed invisible, my feedback on campus situations has received minimal attention, and I have become used to letting other people speak up for me because an accented voice is just not as “loud.” This feeling that my opinions and choices are being dismissed because I am an outsider has followed me for the past seven years, but I convinced myself that these different treatments I received were only due to the language barrier or financial reasons, that it was nothing personal. But the ICE policy reveals a deeper institutional exclusion, alienage in its most undisguised form. I was so surprised by the ICE policy partially because I had believed firmly that this kind of rejection would not be targeted towards scholars, and so I had failed to realize that exclusion has always been the reality for many other “outsiders” of America.
We have been forming communities in a layered way—being included in a community does not mean being on the same level as everyone else. No matter how hard an outsider tries to blend in, the fact that they are an “alien” will make them the first target when there is a conflict with a complicated cause, even though they have no direct link with the problem. Unfortunately, I have been trying to resolve this sense of exclusion by actively disproving my alienage. I have internalized the fact that I constantly need to prove my worth and my legitimacy to stay: either consciously or unconsciously, I often find myself in an active struggle to create a sense of belonging. I have talked in an American way and have adopted Western mannerisms because I wanted to blur the invisible boundary between “me” and “them.” I have been in this act to prove that I am worthy for so long that I don’t see it as a struggle anymore. On some level, I convinced myself that I was part of the club, and so could be seen for who I am, rather than first being labeled as an outsider. But now, that sense of belonging is revealed to be paradoxical: I can never prove that I am not an outsider, because I am and I always will be.
I acted offended when first hearing the news about ICE's policy because I believed that we, the “model immigrants,” don’t deserve this treatment; I had set up another fence between myself and my fellow foreigners, saying that “As scholars, we should be on a higher platform than other outsiders!” In fact, we often see ourselves as the best among the group: we are the least harmful ones and we produce value for this country. We are expected to follow the given rules rigidly and we achieve that with excellence. We follow the status quo and we guard it with our behaviours daily. However, seeing ourselves as higher-class immigrants generates new inequality within our own communities. We are re-creating a fictional hierarchy that prioritizes one group while it dismisses another. Yet the international community is fragmented enough, and we should not fragment it more with our own efforts to disprove our alienage.
Unfortunately, a layered community in a segregated globe is going to be a more and more apparent reality. Bruno Latour suggests in his book Down to Earth that “the very notion of soil is changing. The soil of globalization’s dream is beginning to slip away.” President Trump’s decision to exit the WHO combined with his administration’s hardline immigration policy symbolically and practically begins to remove the United States from the collective of “the West.” Moreover, as the “leader of the free world,” the United States is sending a signal to the rest of us that there will not be a shared globe, and that America will not share what it already has. That America decided to abandon its responsibilities puts the world on edge—the denial of an international crisis such as the pandemic confirms that the United States does not see itself as being on the same team as the rest of the world. The message is clear: America is for Americans, and it is ready to break the promise of a shared land of freedom.