Dear Congress, Please Fix the Student-Visa System Too

Illegal immigration dominates the debate, but the hassles and hurdles faced by legal immigrants in the U.S. to study is important, too.
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Stepping into the American Embassy in New Delhi can be a terrifying experience. As I stood in line in 2012 to get my student visa to attend Swarthmore College, waiting to be interviewed by one of several people seated behind thick glass panes, I watched the interviews of those before me, gradually growing more nervous as I realized that the course of my life depended on receiving a student visa.

Most interviews were short, insignificant affairs. Others began with polite pleasantries and quickly turned into aggressive questioning and fumbling answers if the applicants' documents did not present a convincing story. One woman was asked to produce a wedding photograph to prove she was married to the man that she wanted to join in America. Another was grilled about her multiple attempts to get student visas for programs at different institutions.

Though I saw applicants trying to gain access to better lives with more opportunities, the interviewers probably saw potential terrorists or drains on the social safety net trying to con the immigration system. Watching my countrymen denied access to America, I was convinced that I'd probably forgotten an essential document in my application and would be publicly yelled at just like the others.

Fortunately, my anxiety was unfounded, and my interview was short and smooth. But the cases of the women in front of me are representative of some of the problems that the new immigration bill seeks to address: The Senate bill contains new restrictions on work visas for family members, and measures to crack down on academic institutions that serve as a front for people to enter on student visas before moving to full-time employment.

While border security, illegal immigration from Latin America, and high-tech visas suck up most of the oxygen in the debate, they're not the only important issues on the table. Small changes in existing laws would make the immigration process far simpler for legal immigrants who will be the beneficiaries of the new W visas for agricultural workers, the revised H1B work visas, and F-1 student visas, if immigration reform becomes law. Simplifying the immigration process would both produce a fairer system and benefit the American economy and society.

The anxiety I felt at the embassy reappears whenever I have to deal with issues involving my status as a "legal non-resident alien." For all the freedom of opportunity my student visa gives me, it also imposes some excessive restrictions that affect my daily life.

There are stringent rules about the minimum number of courses I can take to maintain my visa status and the kind of job I can have if I want to work. Off-campus jobs unrelated to my course of study are not permitted. The rules are well-intentioned -- they seek to differentiate between those who are here to study and those who are here to work -- but they have some clumsy side effects.

For example, although Swarthmore has a paid program for students to tutor low-income high school students in a nearby town, I'm not allowed to participate without a work permit, which would cost me innumerable hours and $300 dollars to obtain. And refusing payment for a job that others get paid to do is illegal, to prevent extortion of workers.

Jobs such as dog walking, baby-sitting, and tutoring children are convenient for students but impossible for those of us on student visas. Unpaid internships are permitted but come with strict warnings about receiving any form of payment from your employers. The only money I can receive for my activities in America must come from my school and these activities had better be directly related to the college.

Unfortunately, the immigration bill has not changed much about student visas. The one change that has been approved, however, strikes me as hasty and potentially disadvantageous. Student-visa holders now get a 60-day grace period after they graduate (and their visa expires) to sort out their affairs and leave the country. However, after it was discovered that one of the people charged with obstruction of justice in the Boston Marathon bombings was allowed into the country because of this grace period, the Senate rushed to revoke these 60 days of leeway.

This rule might make sense if there was proof that the grace period was the culprit in the security lapses involved with the bombings, but there's no evidence that suggests the bombing would have been prevented without it. I don't know if the change -- should it become law -- will strengthen national security, but it will certainly affect those who could use those two months to search for a job stateside. With an American education, we could provide valuable services for American employers and enrich the American economy.

If this change is implemented it will mean that I will have to pack my bags and leave immediately after graduating. I'll have no chance to travel and see friends. Any job search will have to be done in my senior year while I am writing a thesis and preoccupied with studying for final exams.

A smaller inconvenience is the lack of official identification that most immigrants face when they arrive. College-issued student IDs aren't considered official ID, so students face two choices -- apply and get a state-issued ID, or carry around a passport. Applying for a state-issued ID can be an onerous addition to the amount of paperwork international students have to complete upon arrival anyway, the most important example being applications for social security numbers. The distance of the DMV from a student's college can cause more inconvenience in the matter. Why can't the embassy simply issue a uniform student ID along with the student visa?

Training immigration officers to be culturally sensitive and resist the urge to stereotype would also be a worthwhile investment of time and effort. While returning from a week long trip to India this spring, the officer asked me if I'd gone home to get engaged or married -- even though my documents proved I was an 18-year old undergraduate student who had gone home for spring break to see her family.

On the plus side, whenever I'm in New York, I'm treated to discounted taxi rides by South Asian drivers who see my skin color, hear my Indian accent and instantly warm up to me. Many of them share the same basic story -- they migrated decades ago, saved up enough to have their families join them, and stayed. Many cannot return home due to a lack of funds. Imagine a taxi driver with an expired work visa and a family to support, but no money to fly back to India and slim chances of finding a job here. When viewed from this angle, it's not as easy to "self-deport" or follow immigration rules as lawmakers tend to believe.

Words like "illegal," "non-resident," and "alien" can dehumanize us and detract from the personal stories and contexts that form the narrative of immigrant life in America. Whether we are students, taxi drivers, entrepreneurs or software engineers, we are all here looking for something better than what our origins could offer us, and we are all invested in this country's economic welfare and progress. Immigration reform should not just be about broad institutional changes but also include smaller initiatives that improve the personal lives of legal immigrants in America.

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Nehmat Kaur is a writer in Washington, D.C.

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