Americans are used to being center stage, to being what others must become familiar with in order to thrive. But foreigners are uniquely able to perceive the unseen in the lives of those who have never lived outside their home country.
UC Berkeley’s strength is in its ability to connect people, ideas and resources to bring new understanding into the world. In this respect, the campus would be a shadow of itself without international students. Many of my closest friends are foreign-born and I, too, would be a shadow of myself without them.
With international friends, I’ve unpacked the ways in which American parties are not quite what television suggests and discussed the particular cultural phenomenon of the farmers market. To realize that such things could be taken as anything but for granted is strange and wonderful.
The international graduate students and professors who have educated me at UC Berkeley have understood the strangeness of American inequality, seen inflation firsthand and truly borne witness to the poverty our campus usually researches as if we are separate from it. I’m lucky my brilliant macroeconomics GSI was Pakistani, that a distinguished Frenchman taught me public economics and that an Israeli woman treated my questions with curiosity and patience in introductory epistemology. To understand the foreign perspective is to love your home anew and to dismiss the foreign is to lose the perspective that allows true understanding and critique of it.
The immigration proclamation released by Immigration and Customs Enforcement on July 6 would have resulted in the deportation of all international students not enrolled in at least one course that meets in person during the upcoming semester. Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard immediately filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government in response to ICE’s announcement, and ICE subsequently rescinded its order July 14 — not even two weeks later.
Powerful institutions fought this order, but the public outcry was felt much more widely. Students at many universities developed lists of in-person classes international students could enroll in to remain in the country even if most courses would be online in the fall. Instagram was flooded with pleas to contact representatives. Many of us felt for the first time the power and will of the U.S. government to violently interfere in our lives and the lives of the people we love. It was horrifying. For others, it was no surprise.
I was silent while Mexican immigrants were criminalized. I somehow believed it was impossible anyone could believe such hateful rhetoric and act on it. I was wrong. The ban on travel from Muslim-majority countries did not impact me in any tangible way, and I trusted in democratic government to correct it as a misstep. I was wrong.
In these instances and every other, I convinced myself of the inevitability of someone else checking immoral political action. When ICE released its statement and xenophobia suddenly felt so personal a threat, I realized the ways in which I should have been loud in my opposition to every instance of dehumanization.
Perhaps you, too, have retained the faith instilled in our youth that decency will prevail by virtue of checks and balances in our system of government. I’m sorry, but there are no true grown-ups in the room. Institutions that do not universally stand for free movement, free thought and the fundamental pursuit of inquiry are not as admirable as they purport to be.
The United States will not reckon with itself in quiet shame exchanged among powerful men behind closed doors, and it will not be redeemed with a singular momentous article in The New York Times. I don’t know exactly what it will take to redeem this country, but no solution is singular. If it does not begin with you and me and every other person who has previously chosen not to act, it will not begin.
There has not been only one moment of pain, and there will not be only one moment of progress. No one-time donation or phone call will reverse our trajectory. We must defend those who fall outside of our immediate circles, and we must structure our own lives to create a world in which it is unthinkable that we would withhold our compassion.
It is still the case that new students from abroad may not enter the United States for their first year with an entirely online course load, but it seems we have again lost our attention span for the lives of people we do not ourselves know. This reminds me how very easy it is to let our individual gaze wander with public attention, forgetting that we are the constituents of our political system. If we don’t use our voices, we have none.
When ICE released its proclamation, I contacted my senators, state senator, governor and Assembly member. I emailed the chancellor to urge her and the campus to take action, and she was quick to respond with her own denunciation of ICE’s statement. In the end, none of them were the silver bullet, but for other actions threatening people’s loved ones, they could be. We just saw that with collective conviction, we can change an imposed reality. We must seize this moment to take action against all ongoing and future instances of fear and hate-based action. It’s the only way forward.