ICE’s Attacks On International Students Aren’t The First Discriminatory Act Against Us

Supermajority Education Fund

July 13, 2020

Thinking about my college experience is like opening a Pandora’s box of microaggressions. I can still feel the clueless, piercing stares of other students as I cried in class after getting alerted about yet another bombing in my hometown of Lahore. I recall breaking down in a school-mandated counseling session following a traumatizing hospital stay; the school therapist asserted my problems stemmed not from the failure of the American healthcare system, but because I had abandoned my cultural values. I remember being left speechless when an Uber driver in my college town asked me where I was from, and upon learning I was Pakistani, asked if I had been to the ISIS headquarters. I remember the student who asked me to be “less loud” when I talked because I was “no longer in Pakistan,” and when a professor made me feel bad about missing class to get my passport renewed. 

When I started college in 2015, I was glad that international students made up more than 20% of the student body and that there was a clear campus culture of engagement in social justice and activism. But I quickly noticed that most American students lacked a general understanding of and interest in trying to understand the legal, social, and political realities of international students’ lives. The onus always remained on international students to educate others about the complications of our existence — and those efforts were often ignored or even dismissed. 

This is the same culture, albeit, on a much larger scale, that international students encountered earlier this week when U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced new regulations that will force international students whose academic institutions are operating completely online this fall out of the United States. At schools that do offer in-person classes, international students must choose between taking these classes as the pandemic continues, and potentially putting themselves at risk, or returning home.

While international students have been scrambling to get information from their colleges and universities on how to maintain their legal status and continue educations in which they have already invested so much, there has been a deafening silence on the part of “domestic” students. Although some have displayed solidarity, many students who are vocal about many other social injustices appear to be blissfully unaware and unbothered by international students’ current plight. 

I would be lying if I said I had expected anything else. During my time at college, I’ve seen “woke” American college students, aware of the social hierarchy within their own country, being blind to the full effect of their complicity in a similar hierarchy on a global scale. American imperialism, which often takes the form of military intervention, has wreaked havoc on the homes of countless international students like me. But international students who spoke about the pain of living under violence as a result of American intrusion were not just ignored on campus but were often negated by the same students that otherwise posed as champions of human rights and inclusion. Take the last American presidential election and the Hillary fever it brought in my historically women’s college. My concerns about Clinton’s problematic foreign policy regarding Pakistan and Afghanistan were either totally evaded or countered with poorly-informed propagandist reasoning, making it profusely clear that the burden of being from a region of political turmoil was very much my own to bear. 

On an institutional level, while our administrators claimed the school was a purveyor of a diverse, global environment, it was quite clear that the “global” issues they cared about were quite selective. In April 2019, there was an uproar across campus about Notre Dame burning down. White Americans took up space in class to discuss how devastated they were and how immense the loss was. The administration echoed their concerns, sent long emails, and held support groups for people disturbed by this news. A week later, a church in Sri Lanka was bombed, killing 269 people and injuring at least 500. The administration remained silent. So did those white Americans who had been distraught the week before. So did most American students of color who had earlier critiqued the administration for magnifying the Notre Dame issue disproportionately because of its whiteness.  

In talking about the alienation I experienced as an international student, I don’t wish to claim victimhood. On the contrary, I want to highlight international students’ resilience and further propagate the need for both college administrations and American students to hold themselves accountable for how they think about their privilege not only within this country’s social fabric but the world’s. I also want to highlight those that have held themselves accountable, like my American friends who have opened their homes and hearts to me in times of need, made efforts to understand my position, and acted as supporters and advocates. My college administration is also trying to improve in its own way. In the summer of 2018, they took steps to allow international students to take up some paid internships and also assisted them with social security authorization and setting up bank accounts. Many institutions do not even have these lukewarm measures in place. 

But we still need to do better. It should not have taken a crisis like this one to realize the struggles of international students, or any group for that matter. And while we are at it, we should not expect international students to glorify the administrations who have sued ICE or otherwise attempted to circumvent ICE’s regulations. Keep in mind that many of these universities were the ones who initially kicked international students off campuses at the peak of a pandemic, disregarding any concern for their physical or mental wellbeing, and their motivations for these measures now are likely profit-driven.

The ICE ruling should not be seen as an isolated incident of bias from a divisive, nationalistic government, but rather a demonstration of how dispensable international students and their experiences are, even in the most liberal and socially conscious institutions. I do hope this regulation, however, encourages my American counterparts to employ a more global lens to their activism.