Letter to the Editor: How it feels to be an international student told to leave

More than one million international students in the U.S. have gone through a roller coaster of emotions in the past week. The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced on Monday, July 6 that student visas would not be issued to students enrolling in fully online programs in the fall semester. Active international students in the U.S. would have to either leave the country or transfer to a school with in-person instruction “to remain in lawful status.” 

Then, a week later, that restrictive policy on foreign students was revoked after high tension and lawsuits from Harvard, MIT and John Hopkins University. 

Although the rule was dropped, its introduction has resulted in intense disappointment with the U.S. as a country — for me and many other foreign students who choose to come here to study and consider it as our second home. 

Let’s make this clear: International students do not travel that far to study online. As an international student from Vietnam at Georgia State, I flew 30 hours from Hanoi to Atlanta — including a 10 hour layover at Doha — on August 11 last year to come here to study. 

As President Trump sent out in a tweet on Monday morning, July 6, “SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!” international students became the ones who want to reopen campuses the most. 

But, with optimistic expectations for school opening, international students could not imagine that the first step of the process would be being asked to leave the country, and such unreasonable abandonment is not the first time. 

When the Coronavirus first hit the U.S. in March, campuses over the country began closing down and classes were shifted online. International students were asked to leave the dorm the next morning in some cases. Many didn’t have any places to stay, didn’t receive any refunds from school and didn’t know what to do. 

Ngoc Kieu, a Vietnamese student at Saint Michael’s college in Vermont was asked to move out of her dorm in less than 10 hours. Her school offered to move out student’s belongings at the price of $770. Because of this, some of her friends just left without bringing anything. 

“I couldn’t even pack up my things, I got the news when I was out of state on Spring break, and wasn’t allowed to come back since then,” Kieu said to me in an interview.

At Georgia State, my abidingly painful memory of that Friday morning, March 13, was that my social media was awash with checking-in pictures at the airport. Every international student that I know at Georgia State left the campus and went back to their home country. Even though I decided to stay in the U.S., seeing everyone leaving this country, I couldn’t help having the feeling of being trapped — or worse, being abandoned.

At that time, I did believe that staying here, in the U.S., was the right decision. Staying still is the best way to calm the situation, to provide chances to go back for people who need it more; staying home is saving lives, staying here is better for both Vietnam and America. Above all, I do have hope for America. 

I kept that belief until the day I heard the news on ICE’s, until I was being abandoned the second time. 

I’m just one of 25,000 Vietnamese students in the U.S. According to the Institute of International Education’s (IIE) annual “Open Doors” report for the 2017-18 academic year. Vietnam remains the sixth leading country of origin for all international students in the United States, contributing $881,000,000 to the U.S. economy

More than one million international students contribute nearly $41 billion to the U.S. economy and supported 458,290 jobs during the 2018-19 academic year. The latest data of NAFSA showed that for every seven international students, three U.S. jobs are created or supported by spending in the following sectors: higher education, accommodation, dining, retail, transportation, telecommunications and health insurance. 

According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, education currently ranks as the nation’s fifth largest services export, larger than business travel.

As international students, we are not allowed to work for the first year; international students actually pay double or triple the tuition fee compared to Americans; international students are not welcomed to apply for an internship or any jobs due to the slowdowns in process applications from international students, limiting their career opportunities. As Asian students, we are being discriminated against across the U.S., especially when President Trump called the Coronavirus “the Chinese virus” or the “kung-flu.” 

Yet, after all that, what we receive is the status of non-immigrants, who become threats to Americans or who derive benefits from their “dream land.” 

And now, I was asked to leave.  

Like a lot of professors who don’t feel safe going to campus to teach, I don’t feel safe going to campus to study. Think about the large number of irrational anti-maskers across the U.S. Think about reckless COVID-parties of American college students. Think about the soaring COVID cases in the U.S. every day. 

Should I risk my health and safety to go to the campus, and then hope to be admitted to a densely crowded hospital? So, international students have two choices: exposing themselves to the virus or leaving the country.  

So I need to leave, but you didn’t mention how. 

The fact is that many countries including Vietnam have not opened their borders and no one knows when.

It has been almost a year since I came to the U.S. and many people have asked me: “How is America?” They knew I had worked and studied so hard to make the American dream finally come true. It was difficult at first while I had so many new things to see and adapt; some good, some bad, and of course it was not easy to summarize the experience in one word. 

Now, America makes it much easier for me to answer that question. It’s nothing but xenophobia. The American dream turned out to be a nightmare

And you know what, Mr. President of the United States, please provide me a way home. I will take it.