An Open Letter to the International Students I Work With

02Dec16

Dear Students,

I write this unofficially, as really I have no official ‘voice’ either for the department or the university, but there are some things coming from the recent election that really need to be said. Frankly, if I were many of you, I’d be feeling a bit scared right now. The President Presumptive (amazingly, Mr. Trump has not actually been elected yet; the Electoral College, which elects the President, will vote on December 19, and almost certainly elect him then) made some statements in his campaign that sound like radical changes in immigration policy. There has also been a reaction to his victory that has been, well to put it mildly, unsavory.

Policy Proposals

Early in the campaign, Mr. Trump called for the elimination of a couple of visa categories, the H-1B (skilled worker) visa and the J visas that allow for people to work on exchange. This is worrying, if you hope to apply for an H-1B visa at some point after graduating, but the change could not happen without Congressional action, and there’s big money behind keeping the program. Still, it’s something to watch for the future. More concerning is the vagueness surrounding his J visa proposals, as he does not define which J categories he would eliminate, or if he would eliminate them all — which would include our exchange students and exchange scholars. Again, it’s something to watch, and would probably only affect future students and scholars.

One of the more disturbing proposals was his call for a complete ban on Muslims entering the US  “until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” There are a lot of reasons to think that this wouldn’t actually happen — the need for Congressional action, the likelihood that the Supreme Court would overturn it — but the implications if it were to happen would be severe. Not only would it mean that Muslim immigrants would be turned away, but so would refugees, Permanent Residents, and citizens traveling (or serving) abroad. Needless to say, F-1 and J-1 students would be included. On the other hand, this could not be implemented until after Mr. Trump’s inauguration day on January 20, so there’s no reason to panic. You can still enjoy your Winter Break. But after February, if you’re overseas and start to hear about immigration restrictions being debated in Congress, you should probably plan to return before they might be passed or implemented.

As a candidate, Mr. Trump said that he would strengthen immigration security with ‘extreme vetting’ of those arriving from other countries, to screen out radicals who might decide to attack the US or its citizens. This sounds serious, but we don’t really know what he means by that. It is possible that you will need additional documentation, face additional questions, or require references at a visa interview, or on entry. Even if done by executive order, this would take some time to implement, but keep an eye out for news about changes and be prepared for them should they happen.

Generally, international students are off the radar of the President Presumptive and his party. When they do discuss international students, though, Mr. Trump and both parties are generally supportive. In short, international students are an export — you bring money into the country in exchange for education.

The President Presumptive’s signature proposal is to “build a wall” between the United States and Mexico to cut off illegal immigration. This proposal, combined with his proposal for mass deportation, will not directly affect students here on F- or J- visas. The students most affected will be those students who do not have legal status, including those with pseudo-legal status under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Students with temporary DACA protection may find their status terminated, and that they have to return to living as they did before 2011. Given the slow working of government, and that their DACA status implies that they have demonstrated that they have been law-abiding citizens after their arrival, I suspect that it is more likely that the incoming administration will simply stop taking new applicants and put the brakes on renewals, allowing the program to phase out as cards expire. There is no guarantee of that, though, and it will not require any Congressional action to make whatever changes will be made. Because the program was established by executive order, it can be undone by executive order.

Backlash

In my opinion, the worst part of the outcome of the election has been the huge spike in hate crimes against racial, ethnic, sexual, and religious minorities, and against women. In the ten days after the election, there were 867 recorded incidents of election-related violence (including 23 anti-Trump incidents). When pressed, Mr. Trump disavowed the attacks and asked the people perpetrating them to “stop it.” (Weakly, and late in my opinion, especially as he had ginned up the attitudes that led to this reaction during the campaign — clearly this group of violent extremists thought that he had endorsed their actions.)

Our office is made of a large number of individuals, who will have cast their ballots for any number of people. (In addition to the two major party candidates, there were candidates representing the Green Party, Libertarian Party, Constitution Party, and two socialist parties on the Washington ballot.) I am also certain that if you were to come to anyone in our office because you had a concern for your safety, they would do everything they could to help you out. If there is only one thing that I trust our college’s president about, it is that the safety and security of all students is one of his highest priorities, and I think that priority is reflected throughout the university. If you had an issue to report to any of us, to the campus police, the diversity office, or any of your professors, I am sure your concern would be taken seriously and whoever you talked with would help you deal with it as much as they could. Still, in the famous line from the TV program Barney Miller, “… be careful out there.”867 attacks in 10 days is a scary number, and were I not a white, straight, cis-male citizen, I would be concerned for my safety. As is, I have the luxury of being able to concerned for others. As terrorism, this works. On the other hand, in a country of over 300,000,000 people, this works out to less than three incidents per million people over the course of ten days. (The US is the third largest country in the world by population, but 179th in population density, so it doesn’t feel like there are that many people in this country..) Despite the spike in violence, you are still relatively safe.

Between the changes in policy and the reactions of an extremist subset of his supporters, it’s clear why some international students would fear the result of the recent election. I recommend a position of caution and optimism. You’re students, so you have decades ahead of you, so you have plenty to be optimistic about. On the other hand, do keep track to see what laws and executive orders might be proposed that would affect you. Be aware and be prepared, but don’t worry unless and until something is about to happen. And remember, that you have a community on your side.

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