International relations, uncertainty and the unintended impacts in our community

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When I teach any course related to international relations the class covers a wide range of issues. We work on concepts and authors as old as Thucydides (Fifth Century BCE), while connecting these ideas to current real-world issues such as the rise in use of drones by the U.S. military and the ethical and political repercussions of using a new technology. A common theme that I see discussed in a class about international relations is the role uncertainty has in influencing world politics. Uncertainty has a way of working at the individual level (how uncertain information can influence a leader's decision), at the state level (how countries try to maintain diplomatic relations with each other to avoid surprises), and at the international level (the creation of institutions like the European Union and the United Nations as a way to allow nation-states and leaders to interact more directly).

Many times these discussions about uncertainty lead to some pretty obvious conclusions. Of course agents (be it people, countries, companies or any other institution) like to avoid uncertainty. That's why we have rules, laws, agreements, contracts, firm handshakes and other ways of establishing boundaries on the actions we take. Go to a school yard when kids are playing, and you will see that many of the conflicts between these kids will arise when someone either doesn't understand the (written or unwritten) rules of the game being played, or if a child is trying to use some loophole to "change" the pre-established rules. I see much of what we study in international relations as ways of addressing the uncertainty of world politics, be it by analyzing how countries navigate these uncertainties or how they try to diminish the types of uncertainties present in the world political system. Many times we study the unintended consequences of actions, and how uncertainty plays a role in these unintended consequences. But sometimes the uncertainties of world politics have unintended consequences that affect our own community directly.

Today I want to talk about some of the unintended consequences the Jan. 27, 2017 Executive Order signed by President Trump is having in our community. Unless you have been living under a Wi-Fi-less rock, you have heard about the executive order barring citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. I don't want to address the legal and political merits of the executive order, since it is currently making its way through the court system and has been covered heavily by the media. I want to talk about the uncertainty this executive order, even if deemed unconstitutional, creates among a very specific group in our own community: our international students.

This is an issue that hits very close to home for me. I was once an international student on a small liberal arts campus. The anxieties many of us international students feel are sometimes hard to explain to those who do not have to experience it. I have been a U.S. citizen for almost five years now, and a green card holder seven years before that. However, sometimes I still have nightmares about losing my I-20 and being detained indefinitely because I cannot prove I am supposed to be here. If you don't know what an I-20 is, ask one of the 146 international students on campus. Actually, 145 students. One of them has not been able to renew their student visa after Jan. 27, even though they are not from one of the seven countries cited in the executive order.

Money and summer plans were always two great sources of anxiety. On the money side, currency exchange rates fluctuations were one of the main sources of nightmares. How can one plan their expenses when all of a sudden the money you use to pay bills is worth half of what used to be worth the day before? This affected summer plans considerably. Every year  around January I had to start planning and make the decision if I wanted to go back home. The price of the plane tickets (for most students today ranging between $800 and $2000) combined with the fact that I could not earn money back home (not easy to find a job) made me decide three out of four summers to stay in the U.S. While staying in the U.S. made financial sense, it was never easy. I had to find a place to live and could only work on campus making minimum wage. At least one year I had to literally beg someone to let me stay with them because I could not afford a place to stay.

The realities for our students, sans executive order, are very similar today. Luther College does a much better job than most schools trying to provide affordable housing to all students throughout the summer. However, the price tag can still weigh on a student's pocket if their funds are limited. For an international student, who by law can only work on campus earning minimum wage, this means working 40 hours a week (if they are lucky enough to get enough hours) to make ends meet. All this while living, likely without a car, in a town that is pretty slow during the summer for a 20-24 year old college student. Add that to the fact that the summer is the only time these students may have to go back home to see family and the decision to stay in the United States, even if financially beneficial, becomes less alluring. So, in January or February, many of these students make the decision to go home for the summer. They may not earn much money while at home, but at least they will be with family and ideally they will "recharge the batteries" for the next academic year.

Enter the Jan. 27 Executive Order. It barred any citizen from seven majority Muslim countries to enter the United States, even if they have a valid visa. It also called for extreme vetting, a policy that has the potential of slowing down the issuance of visas and may create new barriers for citizens of these countries to enter the country, even if they are coming here to get an education. At Luther we have six students from these countries. At this point, even with the suspension of the executive order, they are uncertain about what to do.

But the unintended consequences of the executive order, and the legal uncertainty of what the U.S. government will do next, is what worries many international students. Since this is only month two of an administration that campaigned on limiting the entrance of foreign born citizens (documented or undocumented), the next steps this administration will take are uncertain and should bring anxiety to those who are here on a visa, like our international students. I talked to quite a few international students the last few weeks and they feel pretty vulnerable at this point, and many see themselves in a conundrum. They may not be able to afford staying on campus this summer, but they also are afraid of leaving the country and not being allowed back. It is important to remember that having a valid visa never guarantees a student's entry into the country. Immigration and Customs officers can deny entrance to any valid visa holder for a variety of reasons. Given the current climate and the many examples already shown in the news these last few weeks, the possibilities of something like this happening are increasing every day.

Many of our international students come from developing countries and have limited support from family members. Some of our students are refugees themselves. The majority of our international students are very uncertain of what the future holds for them at Luther and in the United States. This is a time when a specific group in our community is struggling, many times in silence, with the unintended consequences of actions taken by a state entity. Planning for the summer, something that is already stressful for many international students, became even more complicated after the legal battle over the executive order has started.

Luther College's administration is working hard to help assess the impact of the executive order on international students' summer plans. They have pledged to help the six students who may be directly affected if the executive order is reinstated, and are also looking into ways of making summer housing more affordable for international students this summer.

You may be asking yourself, "What can you I to help the cause?" You can share with your elected officials how government actions are impacting our community. But there are also concrete ways to help and show support to our international students. If you are a Luther student, you can donate a meal swipe at the Annual Caf Fast on March 8. Proceeds from the meal swipe will go to the Diversity Center Book Fund and the Sony Lund International Student Emergency Fund. If you are not a student and not in Decorah, you could donate to either of the funds above. If you are a member of the Luther and Decorah Community, you can attend a meeting of the International Students and Allies Association (Wednesdays at 7 p.m. in the Mott room on the first floor of Dahl Centennial Union) and/or the Muslim Students Association (every other Thursday at 6:30 p.m.), show them your solidarity and support. If you live in Decorah and want to help (including offering a room for a student during the summer), contact me ([email protected]). And regardless of where you live, if you know an international student, at Luther or anywhere else in the United States, be sure to tell them that you value their presence here.

What I learned from International Relations is that uncertain times can lead to disastrous situations. However, uncertain times also provide an opportunity for agents (countries, NGOs, leaders, corporations) to get together and solve tangible problems. While this executive order is having unintended consequences to a significant group of our community, I strongly believe that in times like this a community like Luther and Decorah can come together and develop solutions. President Carlson said in her statement about the executive order, "At Luther, we are both a close-knit community and a global community. Our mission reminds us that we are 'people of all backgrounds' and that we are called to 'care for all God's people.' These values shape our community and guide us now, as always." I think it is time for us, as a close-knit and global community, to put our thinking hats on and help our international students in these uncertain times.  

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