Although the recent executive order on immigration has cast the spotlight on international students, the truth is that it has never been easy to be foreign at Yale. Yale can do more for international students, and now is a good time to have a discussion about citizenship and our future in this country.
Protests in the fall of 2015 drew renewed attention to racial, socioeconomic and ideological divides on campus, making headlines at the News and beyond. But one source of discrimination that fails to scratch the fabric of even dining hall conversations is the burden of foreign citizenship.
In fact, international students face a double whammy. Much like American-born people of color, we face the challenges of de facto discrimination. Although official policies actively guard against racial discrimination, it simmers in conversations, class syllabi and residential college names. But unlike U.S. citizens, we also face de jure discrimination that makes ostensibly easy tasks bureaucratic and distressing. These can be big issues such as renewing our legal status in the country as frequently as every six months, but also small issues like decoding alien tax forms for which individualized help is unavailable or towing our entire lives across international borders every year we leave and return.
Moreover, the executive order reminds us that some international students are decidedly unluckier than others. Afghani and Iranian students confront unexpected stresses at the same time that European students can pass off as living average “American citizen” lives. Unlike American cultural groups, international students are united only in their foreign citizenship and occasional struggles but rarely in sustained common interest. Organization and protest are quite feasible when people self-select and disaggregate within a common American identity. It is not the same when the aggregate group is composed of over 100 different national identities. In that sense, you will rarely, if ever, see us organize protests collectively or vigorously advocate for policy change at Yale and beyond.
I in no way want to imply that non-U.S. citizens and U.S. citizens should and could have the same privileges. This happens nowhere in the world. But in this column, I seek to highlight some ways in which Yale underperforms and in which students fail to acknowledge our unique challenges. While the executive order is new, our problems are not.
At least thrice in my time at Yale, I have applied for international educational programs, spring break trips and Yale-coordinated internships, only to discover a complete lack of infrastructure geared toward helping international students navigate the legal processes. While these programs will go unnamed, it was clear that the organizers had never factored in the variable that a selected participant could be an international student. There is little interaction between the Office of International Students and Scholars and the Office of Career Strategy and between academic departments and other arms of the university serving international students. As a result, activities are organized with U.S. citizens in mind. For example, late application deadlines mean that there is insufficient time to apply for visas, and irresponsible organizers often refuse to do the extra paperwork necessary to enable international students to access the same opportunities. If Yale truly wants to be a place where all students — domestic or international — are equal, it must signal to student groups and administrative departments that they must cater to and anticipate the unique challenges of foreign citizenship.
The executive order has made these issues manifest. While Harvard’s president attached concrete actions and new resources to her fiery critique, Yale’s own response was mellow and all-words. At Smith College, one of my international peers from Pakistan attended a legal briefing by a hired immigration law firm within days of the order. Luckily, Yale followed up a week later with similar meetings. But knee-jerk, follow-on reactions to a one-off event are unsustainable and actually lie at the crux of the problem. Universities need to respond practically and preempt actions against even more international students, as we expect a revitalized executive order in the next few weeks.
Having said that, none of this takes away from the overwhelmingly positive support that the Yale and New Haven communities have displayed in that short span of time. Although it comes later than it should, the uproar made the order a sign of hope rather than hate. And for that, thank you.
But let’s not stop here — let’s make sure we stall this institutional inertia toward international students, once and for all.
Arvin Anoop is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .