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OU international students, faculty discuss fears of deportation, rights amid Black Lives Matter protests

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A sign at the rally for international students on July 13.

When a Black, African international student* arrived at a Black Lives Matter march in Norman, they said they were filled with mixed emotions and witnessed the feelings of anguish and sadness in people’s eyes. 

As they shouted the names of Black lives claimed by police brutality, the student said they felt the empowering experience of coming together and fighting for the same cause. 

Some OU international students under an F-1 visa status expressed a desire to participate in protests across the U.S. but discussed the fear of deportation and a lack of unity with the rest of the OU student body.  

The international student said there are misconceptions regarding their visa status limiting their participation in demonstrations across the U.S. 

“The biggest myth I have heard is that (international students) are not supposed to speak up on politics nor stand up for what we believe because that can jeopardize our visa status and therefore lead to deportation,” the student said.

The international student said the international student community represents a minority group on campus that has not escaped racial discrimination. 

“I had to purposely create an environment (in my head) which was welcoming and cordial despite all the challenges and discrimination,” the student said. “But I have been yelled at several times at football games, ‘Go back to your country,’ and I have witnessed more racist incidents on campus in the past years than actually seeing faculty and staff that look like me being hired in my department.”

Prior to the June 6 Norman protest led by OU’s Black Student Association, OU’s International Student Services office acknowledged the frustration felt by those who are discriminated against, and the office sent suggestions to international students who planned to attend the march. 

“We understand that some of you may personally feel these injustices, and others may view what is happening through your own experiences of discrimination seen or felt in this country or elsewhere,” the email said. “We stand with President Harroz in denouncing these murders (of George Floyd and others) and calling for change.” 

The Office of International Student Services addressed the visa status of international students as the starting point of their recommendations. 

“International students in good standing with respect to their immigration status are not at risk of deportation by participating in peaceful protest activities,” the office said in the email. 

Robyn Rojas, International Student Services director, said international students can participate in protests in the U.S., and they are not at risk of deportation by “simply participating in peaceful protest activities.”

Kit Johnson, associate professor at OU College of Law, clarified some rights and responsibilities of international students in an email with The Daily.

“Students at OU on an F-1 visa are authorized to pursue academic study in pursuit of a degree,” Johnson said in the email. “Their responsibilities in the U.S. include remaining in good standing at the University — maintaining the requisite grades, paying their tuition and acting in accordance with OU's student conduct guidelines.”

In 2018, Johnson published Opportunities & Anxieties: A Study of International Students in the Trump Era, in which she researched “the link between President Trump and declining international student enrollment,” according to the article’s abstract. 

“International students were ‘very aware’ of their international status,” Johnson said in the article. “With that awareness came a ‘hyper-realization’ of the limitations of that status and a need to protect it by not engaging in social activism. More than limiting activism, the awareness that any interaction with law enforcement might threaten their immigration status led international students to not put themselves ‘in any vulnerable position.’”

In the email, Johnson suggested international students take a step back from protesting.

“The safest course of action for noncitizen students is to refrain from protesting,” Johnson said in the email. “Now is the time to allow those with citizen privilege to step forward and take the laboring oar on that particular form of activism.”

Although deportation is a popular topic among international students, Johnson clarified international students are subject to deportation only if they are convicted of a crime or by losing student status from not passing courses, not paying tuition or being expelled for conduct reasons.

OU international students said they recognized the facilitation of “cross-cultural exchange on campus” by ISS, but they suggested more cultural diversity experiences to eradicate the gap between students. 

“I have always noticed that there is a huge gap between international students and Americans,” the international student said. “Since one of the goals of the university is to ‘provide diverse cultural experiences to the university community,’ I believe that the university leaders should develop programs to provide equal opportunities and therefore create a safe and healthy environment for everyone.” 

According to the Office of International Student Services, international students have the same constitutional rights as their American counterparts — including the freedom to assemble. 

While international students were already concerned about their legal visa status during the Black Lives Matter protests across the U.S., they became the focus of demonstrations in light of an Immigration and Customs Enforcement decision that prohibited foreign students from re-entering or staying in the U.S. if they receive online-only courses. 

The OU International community reacted to the decision by holding a protest, in which the organizers made nine demands to the university in order to protect international students’ rights. 

Tuesday afternoon ICE reversed the decision on barring international students from online-only semesters for fall 2020 after Harvard and MIT — supported by 180 other universities including OU — took the case to the court. 

For the international student, they said making smart decisions is key. 

“Nevertheless, as an international student, I suggest you always make wise choices and be very cautious of the situations you put yourself in,” the student said. “If it does not feel right, then don’t do it — you have to be comfortable and make sure to protect your mental health at all costs.” 

*Editor's note: This student wished to remain anonymous out of concern for their visa status.

Marien López-Medina is an international student and United World Colleges alumna from Nicaragua. She is majoring in journalism with a minor in public and nonprofit administration and works as a news reporter for The Daily.

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