The pandemic has undoubtedly degraded the UChicago experience. As sincere as the administration’s efforts are to adjust for the restrictions we find ourselves confined by, Zoom University is nowhere near an adequate replacement. Among the numerous facets of the college it has destabilized, COVID has also compounded the difficulties faced by international students. Not only does COVID create day-to-day complications for students studying from their home countries, the Trump administration continues to throw policy jabs at international students that jeopardize both our university experience and post-graduation prospects under the guise of protective measures. With the election looming, I worry about the ramifications of a potential Trump victory that will threaten not only current international students, but also the Class of 2026 and beyond. I urge members of the UChicago community to vote for Joe Biden on behalf of those of us who have little control over our future in this country.
Even without the political predation, online classes hamper international students’ ability to succeed academically and have a meaningful college experience. Many students studying from their home countries have had to limit their class choices to those that meet during tolerable hours of the day due to time differences. Others have to wake up at times that should be reserved for sleep (okay, maybe a late-night movie, but never for Applications of Computer Science II). While some lectures are recorded and can be watched at one’s own convenience, the same cannot be undisputedly said about office hours, RSO meetings, or other university events. Furthermore, Internet access, speed, and reliability vary geographically. While the U.S. enjoys its own price-gouging Internet provider monopolies, the Internet service in most places I have lived is vastly inferior; when I lived in the Philippines, we used to lovingly call our own monopolizing provider, PLDT, “PLDC”—where the DC stands for disconnect. The prime reason my brother cites for preferring his dorm room to our home is that the choice between our loving parents’ homemade dal-chawal and a stable internet connection is an easy one.
Unfortunately, the Trump administration is making the international student experience even more impossible.
In July, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) ruled that international students could not stay in the U.S. if their classes were entirely online as well as other restrictions to students at schools following a “hybrid” model (like UChicago). Acting Deputy Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Ken Cuccinelli admitted that this rule would “encourage schools to reopen,” effectively confirming that international students were but bargaining chips in a plan to strong-arm universities into hastily reopening their doors and discarding precautionary measures. This ruling cheated international students across the board, leaving us and our institutions scrambling to plan for contingencies that were all patently ridiculous. Many international students would have been unable to leave at short notice or travel back to the U.S., whether due to CDC travel restrictions, cost-prohibitions, or other logistical issues. Some of my friends made the decision to take the quarter off, and others who couldn’t go back were stuck paying rent for housing they may never set foot in. While the ICE plan was eventually dropped after much uproar, its message rang clear: the Trump administration does not care about international students.
As if that plan wasn’t egregious enough, in September, the DHS proposed a rule that would potentially limit the F or J visa status, the status which most international students hold, to four years. The rule would also allow the DHS to limit certain students’ stay to two years—a limit that would particularly impact students from 60 countries based on a flawed DHS ‘overstays’ report. Though this discriminatory and frankly racist announcement is only a proposed rule, if it passes, it may endanger the future for international students applying to American universities and make the U.S. a less attractive choice for bright students across the globe. If Trump is re-elected, these rules have a higher chance of passing; though Biden has made no promises, he has made it clear that foreign students and workers are an indispensable part of his vision of America. Even if the rules do not pass, four more years of the administration throwing discriminatory rules at the wall to see what sticks spells immense distress for international students.
The DHS rule looks to limit incoming students and the ICE ruling would have flushed out those currently attending. Joining them in the xenophobia trifecta are the H1-B visa restrictions that would dropkick international students after graduation as they searched for employment in the U.S.. Trump had suspended the issuance of these foreign worker visas, which has impeded not only those UChicago graduates who would have applied for the visa this year, but also future graduates, assuming that American businesses factor in the likelihood that these rules persist. Though a judge blocked the ban a few weeks ago, the Trump administration followed up with another restrictive rule which raises the wages the businesses must pay foreign workers and narrows eligibility criteria. H1-B visas are already issued through a lottery system, which means further restrictions leave international students in an increasingly precarious position. Finding employers that sponsor H1-B visas was already laborious before pandemic-induced hiring freezes; the additional costs and uncertainty resulting from these restrictions have given firms additional disincentives to hiring international students.
The pandemic has left no member of the UChicago community untouched. However, the vagaries of the Trump administration, while no longer surprising, continue to create difficulties for international students during an already trying time. This is the same ICE that keeps children in cages and the same administration which tries to suppress those who ask for equality in their own country. As an international student, the ground is constantly shifting below my feet and there seems to be very little I can do to stop it. When an increasing number of us evaluate our own futures and that of this country on the basis of an election result that could go either way, it is fatiguing to consider this as the best education the world has to offer. At times like these, it is easier to think of the man who accosted me and my friend in downtown Chicago on the very first day of O-Week, telling us that God hated us because we probably believed in Allah. It’s easier to think about the person who sent me threats after reading one of my articles. And it’s harder to remember the friends I made, the city I fell in love with, or the freshly-baked cookies my HBC professor brought for us nearly every week as a reward for slogging through Nicomachean Ethics.
“Go back to your country” has a different ring to it now.
Soham Mall is a fourth-year in the College.