“Freedom!” “Freedom!” “Freedom!” This past Monday, I joined students, workers and other members of the New Haven community in chanting “freedom” in Chinese. We were led by Qin Qin, an immigrant from China and a fifth-year graduate student in Engineering and Applied Sciences. Qin is one of hundreds of workers from around the country who will travel to D.C. and New York City this week as part of the Immigrant Workers’ Freedom Ride. The ride is part of a national movement to spur changes in U.S. immigration policy, which has become increasingly restrictive since Sept. 11.
As a graduate student at one of America’s most prestigious institutions, Qin hardly matches the stereotype of America’s immigrant community. This country’s immigrant community has never been limited to Emma Lazarus’ “huddled masses.” While it is true that immigrant labor has been important to America’s industrial development, this country has also offered refuge to intellectuals and scientists. America has built its academic institutions — and its status as the world’s center for scientific research — largely on the work of immigrants, from those who fled reactionary Europe in the years following the 1848 revolutions to those who formed flourishing communities during World War II.
In 2001, foreign students represented more than one-third of American graduate students in the sciences, with the majority of students coming from China, India and Southeast Asia. Since then, post-Sept. 11 security concerns coupled with recent investigations into Chinese espionage have prompted more restrictions on academic visas. As Bridget Kelly reported yesterday in these pages (“Petition calls for reform of visas,” 10/2), major academic groups have responded to these restrictions with growing concern. The National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine are alarmed about the future of research science in this country.
GESO, Yale’s graduate student union, has been at the forefront of efforts to improve the conditions of international students. This September, they published “The Need for Academic Visa Reform and Labor Rights at American Universities” and the group has also been a force behind the national Petition for Academic Visa Reform, whose sponsors include the American Association of University Professors. This petition calls on university and government officials to work together to develop policies that would ease restrictions on international students while respecting U.S. security concerns.
The fact that the Immigrant Workers’ Freedom Ride has opened its platform to the concerns of international students is one of the most exciting aspects of this campaign. After Qin spoke on Monday, two women — one an immigrant from El Salvador, the other originally from Haiti — described their struggles: the difficulties they have encountered trying to visit family back home and this country’s growing tendency to treat immigrants as criminals.
The diversity of these freedom riders is testament to the fact that immigrant worker rights are not a concern limited to certain classes or ethnic groups. Low skill and high skill workers alike are suffering under the current system. We celebrate the diversity that immigrant communities bring, but U.S. immigration history too frequently has been the story of immigrant groups pittted against one another, between established immigrant communities and more recent arrivals. Labor unions in the United States let racism and xenophobia break strikes and destroy worker solidarity. For too long, they have supported protectionist immigration laws that ignore the way employers have used immigrants — both documented and undocumented — to erode both union density and the economic gains that come with union jobs.
This time around, an amazingly diverse group of people has been working to combat both the specific problems of U.S. immigration policies and a broader xenophobia that has developed in the wake of Sept. 11. From the NAACP to the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium, national groups are realizing that immigrant rights affect us all.
The U.S. provided a home in the last century to my grandparents, who fled European anti-Semitism. I’m excited by the chance to build a 21st-century America that offers the success my family has enjoyed to all immigrants who seek freedom and opportunity on these shores.
Erin Scharff is a senior in Pierson College.