This election year international students in America are a little anxious

International students in America are concerned about their future in the country and whether they still feel welcome

October 12 2020
us visa, student, international student, USA America, study in america

Just over three months ago, on 6 July, I received an email from Yale’s International Office, notifying me of changes to my immigration status. “Could this be right?” I thought, as I frantically read and then reread the email. “Has my time in America really come to an end?” I was in New Haven at the time, and had just learned that the Trump administration planned to alter visa rules for international students. I couldn’t believe what I was reading. 

My friend Georgina is studying at Columbia University in New York, but left the US when universities closed in March. She was with her family in London when her friend sent her a link to the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) website. Georgina clicked on the link and her heart started racing. “Nothing was really clear,” she later told me, “so I rushed home and tried to digest it. After I digested it, I had a good cry.”

The meaning of the ICE directive of 6 July, buried under long sentences of confusing legal jargon, was this: any student taking an exclusively online workload (an unfortunate, but necessary product of the pandemic) must leave the United States within 14 days or face deportation. Students like Georgina, who had already left the country, would not be permitted to return.

On 22 July, the administration revoked these new requirements in the face of a seemingly futile legal battle. But, for students like me and Georgina, a lot of damage had already been done.

“I’ve always felt welcome in the United States,” Georgina said following the revocation, “but now I feel less secure.” Georgina worries that, in an effort to appeal to his base, Donald Trump’s nationalism will only grow more intense before November’s election. For students like us, the fact that a court order was all that stood in the way was not much cause for comfort.

The combination of the pandemic and the election have caused something of a nativist storm in the United States. Only two weeks before the ICE order in July, the administration barred professionals on H-1B visas working in the US and, on 24 July, attempted a more limited ban on first-year international students taking an online course load.

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My friend Ella, from London, was due to enter her final year with me at Yale this autumn and then start a career in the United States, but is now reconsidering her options. “The saga has made me more nervous about returning to study in America,” she told me. “Life as an immigrant seems much more precarious than before”. 

For some of my other friends, like Josh from Lurgan, Northern Ireland, the implications of this ordeal are more extreme. “Had I witnessed this fiasco before, I would have reconsidered ever applying to study in the country for four years,” he told me. The administration’s action has reaffirmed that Connecticut College, his temporary home, is only really that – temporary. When he graduates, he now wants to return to Northern Ireland.

According to a University of California, Berkeley survey released on 1 July, before ICE implemented and then rescinded new student visa rules, immigration concerns were second only to concerns about the coronavirus among America’s international student population. This consternation appears to have only increased since the Trump administration considered permanently excluding many students from their new home.

Under this president, the experience for international students has been harder than we ever expected. Exasperated and deflated, Georgina expresses the frustration of many international students when she asks: “Do I even want to be in a place that doesn’t seem to care?”

There is hope, though, that November’s election will eventually end this saga. After all, studying in America has given  international students so much. We only hope we can do so for longer – and leave this anxious phase behind us.

Read more: Best universities in the United States

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