November 3, 2015

HABR | International Activism

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When I applied to college in America, I wasn’t looking to get an education in a vacuum. I wanted to experience and engage in a different environment and culture, and immerse myself in issues that affect not only Americans, but also many others around the world. Yet, as I engage with some activist communities and clubs across campus, I have noticed a distinct lack of international students on the front lines. I understand the reason behind this, as it stems from a fear that I share. Though American students are definitely still not safe from legal repercussions (especially when taking into consideration their gender and race), they are sheltered from the specific risks we face as international students participating in action. Although student activism has become increasingly prevalent around the world, with students playing a huge role in starting the Arab Spring in 2011 and in protests at a South African university just a few weeks ago, there remain unclear risks of serious consequences.  This makes me, and other international students, feel uncomfortable engaging in protests and other actions, and unfortunately limits our involvement in causes we would otherwise like to help.

As an international student, I find the law (or the idea of it) to have certain constraints for me that it may not for others. The potential threats of expulsion and deportation are the source of many pervasive fears that make me hesitant about engaging in necessary political conflict. Although this fear does not override my passion for social justice issues and political engagement, it certainly makes acting on my desires more uncomfortable. I have never participated in a non-peaceful or violent action, and I know that what I’m doing is perfectly legal, yet I am not entirely sure what rights I have as an international student and when authority intimidation becomes an actual threat. It is hard to know when a threat is just that or more. Because I know that international students have different rights and face different consequences than American citizens do, the sense of anger and defiance I feel doesn’t go as far as to stop the nagging feeling of worry every time I engage in a protest.

As I have found myself becoming drawn to different activist groups on campus, these concerns have been amplified. I sometimes feel guilty for not being as involved in these groups as other members are, but while I share their zeal to disrupt the status quo and make change, their overwhelming enthusiasm includes a sense of defiance and fearlessness that I cannot afford. I often find myself making excuses to avoid protests, die-ins and other actions, where consequences seem possible. While I convince myself not to feel guilty, I sometimes feel like a coward. I feel selfish, and not fully devoted to the cause because of my personal fears.

This anxiety is something that affects not only me, but also other international students I know. If last year’s instance where a student was threatened with public arrest and detainment wasn’t enough, the new administration’s negative response to student activism creates uncertainty. The fear about the power administration has and the lengths it will go to in order to enforce that power hits a bit too close to home for international students who have a lot to lose.

Additionally, the rhetoric surrounding international students, including our visa status, denotes that our place in America or at Cornell is not a right, but merely something we have been generously granted (even though we surely worked hard enough to deserve our spot here at Cornell). As a part of this, we are expected to be grateful for being allowed to be here in America. We are expected not to complain or try to improve our environment because we are simply temporary, and with this comes the implicit threat that our permission to be here can be revoked  at any time.

The fear I have is only exacerbated by my parents’ worries and constant warnings to be careful. My reassurance that everything I am doing is legal, and that there are no reasonable consequences that could occur is not enough to quell the fear they feel about me participating in activism, or the fear I feel when I see a policeman. The discomfort of not having the privileges of citizenship is not helped by my Arab identity, which makes the feeling of always being watched and suspected all the more salient.

College is the time to make our voices heard, and it is unfortunate that international students are often denied the ability to show their solidarity for various issues just because of their status. International students should not be afraid to join other students in working to improve Cornell for fear of more serious retributions and different standards of repercussions. We, as international students, should be held to the same standards as other students when engaging in peaceful demonstration, and should take a more active role to learn our rights and know the limits of what we can and cannot do. While the fear of arrest is bad enough for most students, the added thought of deportation is enough to scare many international students from engaging in activities we know are legal, safe and conducive to improving our education and academic environment, and that is truly a shame.

Katy Habr is a sophomore at Cornell. Comments may be sent to [email protected]. On the Margin runs alternate Wednesdays this semester.