As a freshman at Yale College, Azan Zahir Virji said he would joke with his friends about the U.S. government not letting him stay in the country after studying for so many years and jumping through so many hoops. He came seeking a better life for himself and his family in Tanzania: his mother, a former hairstylist, his father, an electrician. A good education was a stepping stone to a well-paying job, happiness, the American dream.
Seven years later and in his second year at Harvard Medical School, Virji, now 25, finds himself wondering what place there is for a low-income, first-generation, international student like himself in the United States.
“Post-2016, it’s just gotten worse,” Virji told Teen Vogue. He wonders: Am I welcome here?
Whoever the occupant of the White House, international students find their college years tinged with precarity. Their student and scholar visa fees can add up quickly. Visa restrictions prevent them from working off-campus. And graduation brings little relief, as they must seek out an employer willing to sponsor them.
But the Trump administration has installed an unprecedented number of roadblocks for those seeking to complete an education in the United States — roadblocks that lawyers, education groups, and students decry as being as cruel as they are counterproductive.
“This election is critical to the future continuation of foreign students in education programs in the United States,” said Andrea Flores, deputy director of policy at ACLU’s Equality Division.
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In a dozen interviews with Teen Vogue, international students from around the world studying across the United States described their distress over recent years, and acute apprehension surrounding the election. Though they expressed gratitude for the opportunities afforded to them and the communities that have formed thousands of miles from home, a three-word phrase surfaced time and time again: I feel powerless.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, life has become increasingly difficult for these students, like so many others: When campuses closed, some lost access to stable housing and on-campus jobs. Many faced unexpected living expenses and struggled with the sudden shift to remote learning, some of them in far-flung time zones. Others had no way of even getting home, with some countries shutting their borders to stem the virus’s spread.
Then came the Trump administration’s July announcement that it would strip international college students of their visas if their classes were entirely online. Virji feared that the jokes had actualized; the rug, it felt like, was being pulled out from under him and the one million international students enrolled in U.S. universities.
For many, the now rescinded July announcement laid bare the administration’s relentless attack on immigrants at large. “We’re fighting now for the very continued existence of the immigration system,” Flores said. International students, she added, are just “the latest target.”
Under the guise of the pandemic, the president has implemented other measures to further advance his restrictive immigration agenda, experts say. His administration froze green cards for new immigrants abroad. The southern and northern borders have limited nonessential travel, barring asylum seekers from entering. And in June, Trump suspended new H-1B and other visas, arguing that foreign workers posed “an unusual threat” to American workers due to the county’s economic contraction amid the pandemic.
The benefits of international education to the U.S. have long received bipartisan support, said Fanta Aw, vice president of campus life at American University and former president of NAFSA, “the world’s largest nonprofit association dedicated to international education and exchange.” She added, “Under this administration, there seems to have been an erasure of that.”
Heightened hostility risks turning bright minds away from American shores, said Rachel Banks, senior director of public policy and legislative strategy at NAFSA. “We are in a global competition for talent.”
NAFSA estimated that international students contributed $41 billion to the U.S. economy during the 2018–19 academic year and supported more than 450,000 jobs.
Beyond numbers and dollars signs, international students are a diverse and driven group. “We tend to talk about them in monolithic ways,” Aw said. “And they’re not.” They are individuals with hopes and needs — which they say often feel overlooked and unmet.
Luisa, who recently graduated from Xavier University in Ohio and requested not to use her last name to protect her privacy, has been searching high and low in a job market battered by COVID-19. She’s no longer mentioning that her work authorization will expire in less than three years.
“I would rather get my foot in the door first,” the 22-year-old Venezuelan native said. “I am thinking more into the short term. I cannot give myself that luxury in this country to think for the long term.”
Luisa, like many, knew that her path in the U.S. would be difficult. “I understand,” she said. “We are coming to your country.” But she didn’t expect it to feel impossible.
Less than a third of employers planned to hire international students from the class of 2020 (though an increase from the year before), a February survey by National Association of Colleges and Employers reported.
Even before her job hunt, Luisa sometimes felt lesser. During her sophomore year her mother visited, and the pair went on a shopping trip. Fearing dirty looks at the store, Luisa warned her mother: “Mom, don’t talk to me because you are speaking in Spanish, and I don’t want people to hear us.”
Darina Kamikazi, a senior at Princeton University from Rwanda, was blunt: “I love my friends and I love the experiences that I have here, but I think as soon as I get my degree I’m going to leave this country.”
Last year, she wrote a research paper about the mental health of international college students. Despite having a largely positive experience herself, Kamikazi said she’s had countless conversations with friends who are grappling with depression, imposter syndrome, and the weight of the expectations of their family members back home.
“It’s hard to be an international student in this country,” said Kamikazi, a 22-year-old sociology major. The police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the nationwide reckoning with anti-Black racism that ensued prompted another realization, she said: “It’s hard to be a Black person in this country.”
Grace Richardson, a senior at Northwestern University who is from Britain, says she isn’t letting herself become attached to the idea of remaining in the U.S. once she graduates next June.
“It’s so unlikely that I’ll be able to stay because of the current climate,” said Richardson, 21. When people ask her about her future plans, she responds with a quick retort — “If Biden gets in, maybe. If Trump gets in, no.”
But she feels privileged that, for the most part, the directives have only posed frustrating questions of logistics and uncertainty. “I have somewhere else that I can call my home.”
For other students — those whose home countries are experiencing dire economic prospects or ongoing conflict — the outcome of the election has the potential to derail their futures.
Babak Hemmatian, who is nearing the end of a Ph.D. program in cognitive science at Brown University, was last home in Iran in 2017. He rushed back mid-semester that year because his father was dying from colon cancer. Shortly after his father’s passing, facing the impending expiration of his visa and the possibility of another Trump-ordered Muslim ban, Hemmatian was forced to wave his family goodbye and return to the U.S. “I had to leave them grieving,” he said.
He hasn’t left the country since, forgoing chances to attend international conferences in case he’s not let back into the U.S. In recent years, Iranian students have faced increased scrutiny at the border when trying to enter the country with valid paperwork. Some have even been turned away.
Now, with his May graduation creeping ever closer, Hemmatian is considering his options. He dreams of an academic position in the United States, but he’s considering other countries more strongly with each passing day.
Moving back to Iran is not an option for Hemmatian, who is “openly queer and irreligious” and fears persecution. “They’re really low-probability events,” said Hemmatian, 29. “But if they happened, they would ruin my life.”
But he remains hopeful. He has much to be grateful for, he said.
“My friend, my colleagues, even the broader city of Providence, all help me feel connected and less powerless,” he said, adding: “Less powerless, that’s an important part of it. Because I don’t have a vote in decisions that massively impact me and my loved ones.”
Estefania Castillo has been crossing the United States border twice a day, five days a week, for most of her life. She lives in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, and has attended American schools since the second grade, her family cobbling together tuition fees from their auto-parts business.
Life between El Paso and Ciudad Juárez was so fluid that crossing an international border daily was normalized, said Castillo, who is 25 and recently graduated from the University of Texas at El Paso with a master’s degree in rhetoric and writing.
But when Trump kicked off his 2016 presidential bid with the anti-immigrant vitriol that would soon become a hallmark of his campaign, Castillo grew worried these views would be brought from the fringes of American society into the mainstream.
In August 2019, her worst fears were actualized: a gunman opened fire in an El Paso Walmart, killing 23 and injuring nearly two dozen others. The gunman called the massacre a “response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.” He had driven more than 650 miles to unleash terror and bloodshed at that specific store.
“I want to chase the American dream. I want to be like an American,” Castillo used to say. Now, she wonders if she should be trying so hard to please a place that seldom feels fully accepting.
As the presidential election nears, she’s worried that the stakes are high but voter turnout will be low.
But her hope, beyond the ballot box, is for people to be more empathetic with one another. “You don’t have to agree with everything, but there is no reason that we have to be hateful,” she said.
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