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Op Eds

The Language of “Merit” Divides Immigrants When We Most Need Solidarity

By Sabrina Singh
Sabrina Singh is a graduate of Harvard Law School.

On April 20, President Donald J. Trump tweeted that in light of the growing COVID-19 pandemic, he would “temporarily suspend immigration into the United States.” As a recently graduated international student, I asked myself whether I should worry more about my health or my visa status.

On June 22, the President suspended H-1B work visas for overseas applicants. My international friends and I anxiously texted each other with a shared sense that we had just dodged a bullet because we were not overseas, but we braced for what more might come. Then, on July 6, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement released new guidelines requiring international students to leave the country if their universities planned to hold classes online. Dozens of my foreign friends and family panicked, fearful of having to leave school indefinitely in the middle of a global pandemic.

Thanks to lawsuits from Harvard and MIT as well as several states, ICE reversed its exclusionary policies on July 14. International students are safe for now. But we still fear that assaults on our visa status will come in waves, much like the pandemic itself.

Precarity is nothing new to many immigrant groups in the United States. But for many under the F-1 student visa and H-1B worker visa, the assault on our status came as a shock. After all, international students added $40 billion to the U.S. economy in 2019 and created or supported nearly 460,000 jobs in the 2018-2019 school year. There was little economic and policy rationale to target us.

Many of us may have felt we were secure because the Trump administration unveiled a plan last year to prioritize “merit-based” immigration over family-based “chain migration.” This kind of system would give preference to highly-educated, younger, English-speaking immigrants. Unsurprisingly, the immigrants that would get preference may support these merit-based policies more.

But as more recent policies have made clear, it is a false assumption among many international students at elite universities and high-income immigrants that our visa status is meaningfully “different” from those under Temporary Protected Status, asylum, and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival, or those who are undocumented. The word “different” betrays an assumption that our education and professions make us uniquely meritorious and deserving. “Different” may also veil racism and xenophobia toward immigrants from certain countries. For example, many of us may not have acted at the outset of the “Muslim ban” in 2017, when President Trump signed an executive order barring entry of people from seven Muslim-majority countries.

The language of “difference” in immigration is costly. It has allowed many to remain silent even in the face of inhumane and predatory immigration enforcement against certain racial and working-class groups.

It is time to reframe our immigration narrative. All of us face the threat of xenophobia. All of us feel like pawns in political games. Therefore, all of us need to fight for each other.

As a Nepali, I can see that true immigration justice requires solidarities across different immigration categories. Nepal is a small South Asian country of just 28 million people, but the Nepali community has traveled all immigration pathways. Nepal has more than 13,000 college students in the United States, nearly 9,000 workers under TPS and, since 2008, more than 26,500 permanent residents with Diversity Immigrant Visas, a category that grants residency to people from underrepresented countries. I know Nepalis who have degrees from the country’s top universities; those who are doctors at the frontlines of COVID-19; others who got a Diversity Visa and reunited with loved ones after years of living apart; and students who have worked multiple jobs to afford out-of-state tuition that ultimately subsidize costs for their American peers. No matter what our pathway to this country, all of us have relied on the promise of America.

Students are privileged that states and universities mobilized on their behalf. But more is at stake. The U.S. government has proposed new definitions and procedures for asylum-seekers that would effectively end the status for all but very few. Only one day after the Supreme Court protected DACA under narrow grounds, President Trump signaled that he might attempt to terminate it again. The future of TPS is also uncertain, with an appeal pending in the Ninth Circuit and a stagnant bill that could provide TPS holders with an opportunity for permanent residency. We must mobilize in support of those who don’t have universities and employers behind them.

Let us not use our privileges as international students or high-skilled workers to further entrench the immigration hierarchy. Let us rethink our toleration of a punitive immigration system. This administration is dividing us. It is time we build solidarities instead — across class and borders.

Sabrina Singh is a graduate of Harvard Law School.

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