'Everything for Our Whole Family Hinged on This Election': International Students and Graduates Respond to a Biden Win

The afternoon before the 2020 election was called for Joe Biden, Parisa Setayesh got word of another blow to her and her husband’s plans to live and study together in the U.S.

Setayesh, who is from Iran, was informed that her husband’s student visa was being invalidated. Their plan was to study at the same university.

“This was the hardest moment of these past two years, and it was coming at a moment of hopefulness for the future in the U.S., where everyone was looking at the election results thinking the hard part is over,” says Setayesh. She began a PhD program at the City University of New York in 2018 on an F-1 visa. Her husband was admitted to the same school in 2019.

But since Setayesh’s studies began, a series of confusing rules, which sometimes change or sometimes disappear altogether, have made their unification in New York appear less and less likely.

In light of the potential changes in immigration rules that could come under a Biden administration, from temporary protected status (TPS) to asylum seekers to student visas, Rolling Stone has convened a series of roundtable discussions to reflect on the past four years and look to the future. This is the second installment, with a group of students and graduates who are in varying stages of their immigration journey in the U.S.

One common factor that has thrown those journeys into flux has been Trump. CBS reports that Biden plans to start dismantling many Trump immigration rules as soon as he takes office.

“Ever since the beginning of the Trump presidency, it has been further complicated in different steps and with different proclamations for different groups of people,” says Setayesh.

For Setayesh and her husband, there was the Muslim travel ban, in its multiple phases, which included Iran. There was a Student and Exchange Visitor Exchange Program (SEVP) rule which prevented international students from remaining in the U.S. while taking remote courses during the COVID-19 pandemic, which was then rescinded about a week later. Setayesh’s husband’s visa was held up in processing, deferring his studies for a year, and then an administrative change to his program appears to have invalidated his visa. It’s a confusing web of bureaucratic hurdles to wrap one’s head around, with many moving targets.

“In 2018, when we picked our destination, when we picked our career path, and we spoke with our professors here and decided that this was the path for us, this was not the landscape,” says Setayesh. “We were not looking at this much risk. And the further we went, the more the risks piled up. Right now we’re looking at an impossible situation.”

Even after graduating, those risks continued for both James Stuart, a graduate of the School of the Visual Arts from Australia, and Sonali Kolhatkar, a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin from India.

“[Trump] is using our lives to make a political point with his base,” says Kolhatkar, who came to the U.S. on an F-1 visa, is now a citizen, and is currently unable to bring her parents to the United States. “All of these claims about ‘just get in line,” We are in line. And we are being pushed out of line over and over again.”

Stuart is in the process of renewing an E-3 visa, which is just for Australian nationals, while also trying to obtain a green card in the Diversity Visa Program.

“There’s this nightmare intersection of Trump’s spasmodic immigration directives which have causes a pale of anxiety for the last four years,” says Stuart. “When we learned that he had lost the election on Saturday morning, I felt this enormous weight lifted off my shoulders because even if these directives don’t become policy, he has just been undermining the American immigration process since day one.”

 

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