what it means to be a "non-resident alien"

by Gia & Celine
July 15, 2020

Last week, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced that if U.S. colleges remain online for the fall semester, international students must leave the country or risk deportation and revocation of their visas. Just yesterday, the Trump administration rescinded last week’s announcement, allowing international students to remain in the U.S. should their classes be online. Though this was a sigh of relief for everyone, we can’t help but ask:

What’s next?

We may have scraped by this time, but who knows what Trump will decide to do next week. As recent international students ourselves, from the Philippines and Malaysia respectively, this issue hits so close to home. The Covid-19 pandemic seems to be a convenient excuse for the Trump administration to further tighten immigration laws. Work visas like H1-B may be cut and student visas like F-1 were threatened; no one with a foreign passport is safe anymore.

When we first came to the U.S. four years ago with hopes and dreams of a better, successful life, we encountered roadblock after roadblock, hump after hump. International students are presented with a false sense of endless opportunities. We live always waiting for the “but” - knowing that our existence in this country is defined by limitations. This reality is something we are keenly aware of from day one and is experienced beyond our undergraduate lives. We could earn money but we could only work on-campus for a maximum of 20 hours a week. We could get an internship but it had to be within our field of study and undergo additional visa processing. We are often burdened with paying full tuition not by choice but because we aren’t eligible for FAFSA or any form of financial scholarship.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. The lack of true opportunity for international students in the U.S. is one aspect of a much larger conversation. Our lack of stability throughout the years is almost like a running joke, especially with the Trump administration. The punchline, of course, is that this is our reality. We never had the luxury to go home for a weekend if we missed our families. Comments like “wow, how are you so good in English?” are nothing short of customary. We’d be labeled “exotic” as if it were a compliment. People assume we come from the wealthiest families because they’ve seen “Crazy Rich Asians.” But this, along with all the other constraints and limitations of being an international student in the U.S. is still better than the alternative. Why stay in a country that is so adamant on kicking us out? Because within the threats of deportation and all the legal hoops presented to us lies the illusion of the American dream and unwavering hope that we can achieve it if we just worked hard enough.

Is it actually possible though? The odds were stacked against us from the beginning but surely there must be international students who were able to find “success” in this country. The recent ICE policy served as a slap in the face, a reminder of just how easy it is for the government to bend, break, or make new rules to back us into a corner. It doesn’t matter at all that every international student has come here legally. We will never be more than a “non-resident alien” in this country. No one said it would be easy, but it shouldn’t ever be this hard.

To all the “non-resident aliens”: you are no alien - you are a person. A person who deserves an equal playing field with your American counterparts. You don’t need to justify your “status” to anybody because your place here is rightfully earned and should never be questioned and toyed with.

To all the organizations, companies, and businesses: before you claim to value “diversity,” take a hard look at your hiring practices. We can’t even count how many times an internship or job application ended with: “Will you now or in the foreseeable future require sponsorship for an employment visa?” knowing full well an answer of “yes” will automatically put us in the “reject” pile. If jobs were given based on merit, as it should, we would never be asked what country is labeled on our passport.

To our fellow internationals: your culture, ambition, and perspectives are important, valued and above all, needed during this time. Your identity as an international is your strongest asset, even though people, companies, or this country may use it against you. Own it, live it, scream it at the top of your lungs. Be unafraid to occupy this space because you can create your own “American dream.”