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international students f-1 visas trump pandemic coronavirus covid-19

My Classmate’s Keeper

Humanity, more than quantifiable benefits, should inform America’s appreciation of international students.

Words: Isabel Bernhard
Pictures: Brooke Cagle

On the afternoon of July 14, the Trump administration retracted a recent US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) visa rule regarding international students. The proposed rule, established on July 6, would remove international students in the US on F-1 visas if their American institutions transitioned to online-only education in Fall 2020.

In arguing for a retraction of the visa rule, legal briefs and online petitions often framed international students’ right to remain as a matter of American economic productivity and public health. This strategy was legally successful. Yet a transactional assessment of international students’ value does not do justice to the depth and breadth of their contributions. It ignores the intangible ways America benefits from international students’ integration and cultural syncretism. In prioritizing numbers over narratives, and macro-scale effects over micro-level actions, economic and security arguments also rob international students of their full humanity. This week’s rescission reached the right outcome by weighting the wrong category of evidence.

A key measure of international students’ contributions in America is their unprompted kindness, unremunerated efforts, voluntary leadership, and steadfast contributions that do not fit cleanly into statistics. These unquantifiable gifts may not have decisively impacted the judge’s decision. But memory of international students’ actions for others arguably spurred over 200,000 people to sign a petition urging the White House to rescind the policy. Such memories motivated students at my alma mater and around the country to compile resources and administrators’ contact information to pressure an institutional lawsuit.

In prioritizing numbers over narratives, and macro-scale effects over micro-level actions, economic and security arguments also rob international students of their full humanity.

Our anecdotes of international students’ extraordinary giving should be highlighted and shared as visibly as the legal outcome this week. The statistics-based factual reservoir for international students’ contributions exists in abundance. Yet without knowing international students in person, it is harder to marshal the emotional resolve to reject cruel and unsound immigration policy in future years. As a friend, classmate, thesis advisee and student of current and former international students, I learned lessons of dedication, flexibility, resolve, advocacy, compassion, and perspective from their investment in our community.

International friends and classmates were the driving force behind campus organizations during my time in college. They taught me to approach challenges head-on and to learn by doing, not to wait for a future problem that fit my skillset. The largest student organization at my university was headed by an international student who deftly navigated a funding shortage exacerbated by a pandemic. My campus orchestra included an international student who played in his home country’s national ensemble; he seamlessly transitioned from professional musician to assistant conductor within the space of a year and led our rehearsals and performances.

International grad students were the mentors, advisors, and role models that shaped my college education. They taught me to advocate for perspectives and people missing in important discussions. My undergraduate thesis advisor, an international student, encouraged me to take an unconventional approach to a widely-analyzed topic in my thesis. He, alongside two other international grad students in the same department, also advocated tirelessly for accountability and institutional change after a tenured professor was accused of sexual harassment. Their vocal responses to administrative inaction were particularly inspiring given the notable power imbalances of the situation.

Former international students who became my professors welcomed me in their classes even though I was outside their academic disciplines. With patience and generosity, they showed how their fields of study were applicable to my daily life. One professor taught a course on historical memory and transitional justice. Equipped with a non-US perspective, she highlighted incomplete transitional justice in the United States such as Reconstruction and its echoes in current events. Another professor who taught literature and poetry of his native country analyzed ways to write about homelands and exile, which gave me the compassion to imagine experiences different from my own.

The international students I know in America do not act as if their experiences are transactional. At every degree level and at every level of involvement on campus, they work unconditionally to support, protect, and educate others around them. Yet our country’s legal arguments for their presence and our proposed policies for their removal still see international students in a two-dimensional light: do they give more than they take? This lens of evaluation is factually incomplete and personally hurtful, both to international students who have given so much of themselves and to Americans who have been fortunate to learn from them.

To counter this attitude, anecdotes are crucial in breaking down the myth behind it: that international students are here to out-compete domestic students or to extract resources from our country. Beyond securing the basic necessities all people deserve in order to live, the international students I know are not interested in “taking” from America. They give every single day, and they are giving America their time, energy, optimism, and creativity above and beyond what can be measured. This is public service; this is social grace; these are the behavior and values that all Americans recognize as ours too. On this basis alone, international students have built a hard-earned place for themselves in our country that no rule can revoke.

Isabel Bernhard is an MSc. candidate in Latin American Studies at the University of Oxford.

Isabel Bernhard

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