International students in the U.S. struggle to protect their safety and identity in the wake of changing immigration policies. 

By Priya Potapragada


On a spring Monday morning, students in an English class at Montgomery College in Maryland delved into a discussion on a New York Times article, “My Most Unpopular Idea: Be Nice to Trump Voters.

These students are part of the American English Language Program where non-native speakers learn the cultural nuances in American English to prepare them for higher education.

Professor Heather Satrom and students in the American Language Reading class at Montgomery College. (Photo by: Priya Potapragada)

The room was dark as they looked at the article on the classroom projector. The class started by discussing the article’s message, tone and language.

The discussion invariably landed on issues regarding immigration policies, personal safety and interactions with supporters of President Donald Trump.

Most of the 18 students in the class were from Ethiopia, El Salvador and West Africa.

Some had experienced war in their home countries. Several students were Muslims.

The entire class asked to remain anonymous, out of fear of legal consequences. However, they had plenty to say about their status under the current administration.

“I used to call home worried about what’s going on and now they call me worried about things here because of things against Muslims,” said a student who said she is from Ethiopia and Muslim.

Another student from Ethiopia said he felt uncomfortable when he left the Washington metro area and went to Alabama for work.

“The police and everyone is (sic) angry and it felt like I was back home,” he said. “I see that difference when I leave this area.”

Students also said they were worried about the government’s stance which might force them to return to their home countries before completing their education.

“What’s going to happen if I have to go back and face my family and tell them everything I worked for was for nothing?” a student from Nigeria asked.

“They don’t like foreigners and ask us, ‘when are you going home?’ and tell us not to come here, but even home is not safe,” said a student from the Congo.

Heather Satrom, an associate professor in the American English Language Program at Montgomery College, said the “divisive” language used since Trump’s election has caused international, immigrant, undocumented and refugee students — as well as targeted groups like Latinos and Muslims — to question whether or not they are welcome in America.

“That’s so hard to hear as a teacher, and we’re trying to help build their English skills, and I’ve seen former students who have become successful and I want that to continue — but there are a lot of unknowns right now,” Satrom said.

Satrom and her students talked about the concept of the “American dream,” which they said was much easier to talk about when Barack Obama was president.

“I’d like to believe that America is still about that, but the message that the government is sending out about the wall and keeping certain groups out definitely contradicts what America has represented traditionally,” Satrom said.

They wonder if that dream is still alive, and if the country still symbolizes opportunity for people in other countries.

“What’s going to happen if I have to go back and face my family and tell them everything I worked for was for nothing?” — student from Nigeria

“Trump promised to make America better but saying people need to go back has made an emotional impact on immigrants and might create conflict,” said a student from Sierra Leone.

Minority students lay low to obscure their heritage

Sarah Al Nasr, 20, a Muslim Syrian-American and a political science and corporate communications major at Southern Methodist University in Texas, said people have felt a certain way for a while but now voice it. “People feel more emboldened to say things that they wouldn’t have before the election, things that are a bit more offensive,” Nasr said.
“I’m white-passing so people don’t associate me as a Muslim-American. I had a friend who talked about Syria and the refugee crisis and keeping them out, not realizing that I’m a Syrian Muslim-American. But when I mention that I’m Syrian, people change their tone and say, ‘well that’s different,’ when it’s really not,” she said.

At SMU, Nasr doesn’t feel out of place. But her political stance is different from her classmates.

“SMU is predominantly conservative. Before the election, I had a professor point-blank ask if anyone was voting Democrat, and out of a class of 30 people, I was the only one who said ‘yeah I am,’” Nasr said.

Ramya Avadhanam, Ph.D. candidate at the College of William and Mary. (Photo courtesy: Ramya Avadhanam)

Ramya Avadhanam, 32, is an Indian-American finishing her Ph.D. in counselor education and supervision at the College of William and Mary. Avadhanam said she sees a change in the language being used to describe specific groups.

“Today during my walk — and we are in a situation where the intersectionality of being women and being women of color — we had one white man who told us to go back from where we came from, and this is the stuff that has become more prevalent because our president has made it okay,” Avadhanam said.

“Before people were more discreet about their ethnocentrism but now it’s become more of a norm, so I go to certain places that are more inclusive and try to be preventative in that way.”

The current political climate has made them less open about their identity.

“Before I’d purposely insert that I’m a Syrian Muslim-American, but post-election I’ve realized that it’s not something I bring up anymore and realized there’s a time and place to mention that. I just got tired after the election. It was constantly arguing and it’s fine if people have differing opinions because you’re not likely to change those,” said Nasr.

According to the Uncertain U survey conducted by American University journalism students, nearly a quarter of students in higher education institutions are concerned about disclosing their nationality or religion out of fear of judgment.

Avadhanam also talked about emphasizing her “Americanness” so that she does not stand out.

“Even at the airport, and I caught myself doing this because there was this huge group of Indians from Gujarat, and I tried to differentiate myself, and I was very particular and intentional in the way I was saying things, that I have an American accent because I didn’t want to be questioned the same way,” Avadhanam said. “I know I’m utilizing my privilege so now I’m trying to use my privilege and advocate for others.”

Campus communities advocate for their students  

Montgomery College took steps to support students in difficult positions. The college’s faculty recently established the Institute for Race, Justice and Community Engagement to provide a safe space for affected students.

Vincent Intondi, associate professor of history and a founder of the institute, organized a walkout for faculty and students from the college to show support for international and undocumented students.

“I probably have never had as many students come to my office crying and literally shaking about what was happening,” Intondi said. “It’s not on them to necessarily be out there protesting. If they go and protest and get arrested they’re going to get deported, so it’s on us. I don’t have as much to lose as they do, so it’s on me to be out there on the streets.”

Leohana Carrera, 21, a junior majoring in government and international politics at George Mason University in Fairfax,Virginia, is the public relations chair of the  Mason DREAMers, an advocacy organization for undocumented students.

Carrera said that George Mason has a large community of undocumented students and needs a safe place to express feelings.

“As the discussion of being documented and undocumented is always underneath the table and nobody really talks about it, we always advocate ‘undocumented, unapologetic,’” she said.

“But because of the new administration, you can be unapologetic about it, but you can’t be very public about it, so we really try to keep everything confidential.”

Schools like University of Maryland, College Park, and Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., have declined to comment, though they have appointed part-time and full-time undocumented student coordinators in the past months.

Executive Board members of the Mason DREAMers organization at George Mason University. (Photo courtesy: Leohana Carrera)

International students now hesitate to study in the U.S.

An American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers study showed that nearly 40 percent of colleges saw a decline in applications from international students from the Middle East. Twenty-six percent of institutions also reported a drop in applications for fall 2017 from China and India.

A Montgomery College student from Nepal said her friends are worried about coming to the U.S. for school.

“My friends are afraid to come here for school because of everything going on here,” she said.

Nandhagopal Natarajan, 28, is an international student from India on an F1 visa. He is currently finishing up his MBA in technology consulting and business analytics at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

Natarajan said he told his friends back home not to come to the U.S., as the job market is getting impossible for international students. Most of his friends, like him, not only want to receive an education in the U.S. but also want to settle in this country.

“I accept and I can appreciate that the country doesn’t want anyone coming to the country, and they want to focus on American jobs, and citizens should be given first preference. But the delivery of the message is not well-done, and making people feel unwelcome is not good.” — Nandhagopal Natarajan

Natarajan has up to 12 months to find employment but is not sure how the policy on his visa will change in the coming months and said that recruiters are scared to hire international candidates.

Along with employment concerns, Natarajan has experienced what he calls “mild racism” in an urban and more liberal area like D.C. The rhetoric during the election period has affected how he processes certain situations.

“After the election, I can see a change because when I get into the Metro and it’s predominantly a white crowd, I subconsciously think about how many people don’t want me here. I never had that feeling when I came here in 2015. While I don’t think I’ll experience any physical attack, I do think subconsciously I do feel more like that,” he said.

Natarajan said he understands that the current administration wants to focus on American jobs but said that the message bothers him.

“I accept and I can appreciate that the country doesn’t want anyone coming to the country, and they want to focus on American jobs, and citizens should be given first preference. But the delivery of the message is not well-done, and making people feel unwelcome is not good,” Natarajan said.

Natarajan said he expects the U.S. government to be more responsible with its words.

“Even India is very divided and we have a lot of issues as well but the thing is that America has higher moral standards than many other countries and so if you have talent, you will get opportunities. That’s why people come here.”


Featured photo by Joan Hua