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We are More Than Your Paycheck: The Dehumanization of International Students in the United States

Updated: Oct 15, 2020


By Santiago Castiello-Gutiérrez and Xiaojie Li

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Photo by Katie Moum on Unsplash


As it has been reported widely, the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) announced modifications to temporary exemptions for nonimmigrant students taking online classes for the fall 2020 semester. According to this policy, F1/M1 students (and their dependents) at institutions that plan on “operating entirely online” are not eligible for staying in the US, and students at other institutions that offer in-person or hybrid classes are required to enroll in some in-person credits.


As current and former international students in the US, this is one of the times when we particularly feel that our rights are too vulnerable, and our struggles are too easy to be neglected. Have the policymakers thought about the apartment leases we have already signed? Have they thought about whether it is possible, safe, and affordable for us to travel back home amidst the pandemic? And more importantly, have they considered that some of us may not even have a place ‘back home’ to return to? This guidance makes us question whether the country in which we have spent years studying, growing, playing, making friends, and raising children actually respects our lives and sees us as human beings no different than those who hold a US passport.


But this is not the first time that the United States tries to oust immigrant and international students. First, it was the 2017 travel ban which stopped people from Muslim-majority countries to enter the US for national security concerns. Later that same year, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program was rescinded pushing out or back into the shadows close to 700,000 young immigrants who grew up in this country. Then, last month a new proclamation went into effect banning the entry of certain Chinese students with military ties under the rationale of preventing espionage activities. A couple of weeks after that came the executive order that suspended the entry of H1-B and some J visa holders to the US-based on the argument that highly skilled migrants such as faculty members and postdoctoral researchers are a threat to the US labor market. Over time, we are sadly almost getting used to being portrayed by the government as some type of enemy; it seems like we all are (at least potentially) terrorists, criminals, spies, or thieves of jobs and intellectual property.


However, this last affront is among the most extreme ones because no rationale is provided. This move represents the federal government’s willingness to use over one million legal temporary immigrants as “political pawns” to impose their will. We acknowledge and sincerely appreciate that many institutions made the difficult but responsible decision to move a majority, if not all of their courses online so as to protect the health of all students, faculty, and staff. Clearly, this guidance is nothing but a political maneuver from the government to force universities to open, to force them into a ‘back to normal’ that simply does not exist anymore.


At the same time, one of the toughest realizations is that it is not just the federal government that is dehumanizing us as international students. Unfortunately, those who are fighting with and for us also use language that unconsciously embraces the nationalist narrative. Such language is often taken for granted, but for us, it can be hurtful. Many times, the arguments that universities and other international student allies used to defend our place and belonging are framed based on the economic contributions and valuable talent that we bring to this country. Although without harmful intentions, these arguments perpetuate the narrative that we are commodities and omit the fact every single student is a story, every single one of us has a life in this country, and that our lives are inherently connected with the life of others. Yet, we are still in the middle of power struggles watching how the government cares about politics and optics while the universities care mostly about the financial implications.


Therefore, we hope that our institutions and other national organizations can question and reflect on their biases when fighting with and for us. We need our institutions not only to offer a pathway that complies with the government, but also to fight the government’s policies that come from a xenophobic place and jeopardize our safety. We want to see ‘the greatest higher education system’ coming together to exercise their agency and defend the ideals they have so heartfully written in their mission statements and strategic plans. We want our universities to listen to us and actively assist us with the extra financial, academic and psychological obstacles resulting from the new guidance, and thus affirm that we represent more than an influx of financial and intellectual resources to them, that we are more than just what pays for their paycheck. We were thrilled to learn that two of the most powerful universities are suing the government for enforcing what they see as an unlawful guidance. This is the type of action we expect from our institutions. As Gary Rhoades, a professor in our department put it: “These are our students. It is NOT about $. It is NOT about ‘talent’.” This is the way we want to be seen.

We also want all international students to realize our own worth and speak out for our rights. We too have been complicit in making this a business transaction. For far too long, we have tolerated and internalized the apparently ‘win-win’ agreement where we accept and see no problem with being treated as cash-cows as long as we get to benefit from the perceived prestige of earning a US degree. This is a hard dilemma and we need to reflect on it. There are indeed many issues of inequity in the higher education system of this country, and we cannot be silent observers and outsiders. Instead, we need to be more conscious about our own part in creating and perpetuating them, and act to fight against them. We are not only influenced by, but we also shape, the environment we live in. Let us work together to make things better; we owe it to ourselves if we are really invested in being part of our new communities. Regardless of what politicians say, a nationality or citizenship does not define us. In this day and age when transnational lives are normal, we have the ability and responsibility to be active citizens in many places at the same time.


About the authors


Santiago Castiello-Gutiérrez (he/him/his) is an international student and a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Arizona’s Center for the Study of Higher Education. Contact: santiagocg@arizona.edu | www.santiagocastiello.com


Xiaojie Li is a Ph.D. student at the University of Arizona’s Center for the Study of Higher Education


Photo by Katie Moum on Unsplash

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