“We’re being used as political tools. That’s the most heartbreaking part of everything.”
Huy Vuong, a rising senior at UMass Boston, came to the United States in 2017 to study biology. He traveled from the major metro area of Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam, a place that he described as a “city that never sleeps,” lively and engaging.
While Vuong said he did not experience a difficult language barrier, some differences in culture made him miss his homeland. Eventually, he became acclimated, but had been renting an apartment, and when the coronavirus escalated in March, he received notice that all classes would be arranged online.
Months later, on July 6, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Department of Homeland Security issued a directive that would require all international students taking only online classes to return to their home countries. Vuong said that when he first heard the news, he was surprised, perhaps even incredulous.
“I read it a couple of times but thought that I had read it wrong,” Vuong said. “I talked to another friend about it, and she said, ‘I don’t think you read it wrong. Look on the news.’ All the credible news sources were saying the same thing. My next thought was, Now what?”
Upon realizing he might have to return home, Vuong grew frustrated, and in a moment emailed the Vietnamese embassy for help with travel. Meanwhile, he began to feel that his relationship with the US government was ruined.
“In a business sense, or even in a personal relationship, if the other party treats you like that, after you invested time and effort into choosing them, it feels like a betrayal,” Vuong said.
Many international students like Vuong experienced similar frustrations and anxieties. Deportation remained a possibility, as did the idea of transferring to a different school with in-person instruction, a risky move. In the wake of the Trump administration’s directive, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology filed a lawsuit against ICE and the Department of Homeland Security, aiming to protect their students. On July 14, the administration dropped its proposal, rescinding the rule, in a decision that meant victory for universities and their students—at least, for now.
“That was a huge relief,” said Thalia Viveros Uehara, a PhD student at UMass Boston studying global inclusion and social development, originally from Mexico. “My academic community, they were raising their voices and undertaking town halls, and people were moving. The bright side of it is you come to realize how democracy works. It’s not that one person has the final and decisive voice. …But what I feel is that the country is in very uncertain times. I see and feel a lot of instability, and I’m aware that universities are struggling.”
Students are right to feel cautious. On July 24, ICE noted that new, incoming freshmen, attending schools as international students and taking entirely virtual course loads, would not be allowed to enter the US.
Even before the late-July decision, Harvard announced that first-years would not be allowed to study on campus. Woojin Lim, a rising junior studying philosophy at the Cambridge university, called the school’s choice “heartbreaking,” and said that the presence of international students on campus is valuable.
“We’re kind of victims, in a sense,” Lim said. “We’re being used as political tools. That’s the most heartbreaking part of everything, that the government isn’t putting public health at the forefront of public policy but is keeping selfish, nationalist interests in mind. …A lot of students who were considering staying in the States post-college are reconsidering their plans now.”
Many have speculated about motivations behind the ICE directive. Viveros Uehara called the rule discriminatory and xenophobic, and said it was directed at a vulnerable population to make people feel unwanted. Vuong labeled it a “political move,” intended to put pressure on schools to open in person. Lim said he sees the government using international students as “chess pieces,” leveraging them to promote their own policies and to open schools in the fall. According to Viveros Uehara, the Trump administration made it clear that the decision was “political, and not about us.”
“All of a sudden, you’re like a criminal—We don’t want you here. We want you to go—in spite of the fact that in your home country, the cases are rising,” Viveros Uehara said. “Me and my fellow international colleagues didn’t see any grounded intention or strong motivation. What’s left is to think that the only reason is political and xenophobic. It targets a population that is under vulnerable conditions.”
Most international students will resume classes in the fall, attending online. Lim has returned to his home country of Canada and is considering taking a gap year to live in South Korea, where he was born, out of disillusionment with the virtual system. Danny Lee, who is originally from South Korea and is pursuing a pharmacy degree at Northeastern University, said that without international students, who make up about 30 percent of the school’s population, the campus would look very different.
“Missing that population would make the school look deserted,” Lee said. “I don’t know what kind of learning environment it would create. …I can’t imagine what the campus would look like in the fall. It would be missing a whole population. …I have a feeling it’s not going to look much like a school anymore.”
Viveros Uehara said that she approaches the need for international students to defend their rights to stay in the country from the abstract point of view of what liberties people may have. Furthermore, international students are an indispensable part of the classroom.
“I see it from a freedom perspective,” Viveros Uehara said. “Imagine if you have a catastrophe in your home country, and you can be able to go and then come back, without the fear of losing all your educational rights or your program. It’s about freedom. It’s about personal capability to confront life issues without the fear of being given a pushback.
“We’ve come, during the 21st century, to have such challenges that they can only be addressed with various angles of cultural views. Having people from Nigeria, from China, from Europe, from Latin America, seeing and learning about the same issue and providing you with comments on how they see differently, enriches your education.”
This article was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism as part of its Pandemic Democracy Project.
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Shira Laucharoen is a reporter based in Boston. She currently serves as the assistant director of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. In the past she has written for Sampan newspaper, The Somerville Times, Scout Magazine, Boston Magazine, and WBUR.