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“But you can’t vote”: Why international students should care about US politics

It was ten minutes into the lunch hour and Ms Iyer, my biology teacher, at my international school in Japan, announced to a packed cafeteria that she is suspending the class for the day. A few sighs of relief in an otherwise tense environment. The projector was displaying the live updates of the 2016 elections and plates of food remained untouched as all eyes were glued to the numbers increasing on each side of the screen. When the results came in, there was a flurry of desperate calls and out of the corner of my eye, I could see my college counsellor shutting her eyes in pure defeat, knowing that her office would be packed for the next few weeks with questions about how college would look based on these developments.

Yesterday, I went canvassing for the 2020 elections with three other international students in support of Bernie Sanders. What is similar between then and now is my involvement in an election that I cannot be a part of. Carleton students, for the most part, care about politics. The statement is not a shocker but the fact that a good segment of extremely politically active Carleton students are international students does raise a few questions. The most common one is, Why do you care? You can’t even vote. A statement, though true, ignorant of the impact of American politics on other parts of the world. It is a statement that helps further the othering of international students from not only the discourse of national politics, but from the idea of what it means to be living in America.

When we put in the address of Northfield, Minnesota for residence, we claim the benefits we get in American society, and those benefits come with responsibilities. When we claim the right to gain the facilities and freedoms that come with being a part of American society, we gain the responsibility to be involved in politics that shapes that society. I unfortunately do not have the privilege to vote but I also do not have the privilege to be neutral. Who wins the 2020 election may change the face of the world, and before you call this a hyperbole, I would like to remind you that the fascist Indian government that changed the face of one of the most polluted cities in the world to welcome Trump last week, also loves to say “India First” and “Make India Great Again”. When politics in America literally sets the backdrop for politics in many other countries, we cannot afford to be neutral. Knowing this, when domestic students express a polite disinterest in their own politics, I am unable to suppress my irritation as someone who doesn’t have that right to begin with. When your vote affects my reality, you really can’t not care.

Maybe my personal problem is of little interest. However, there is a universal issue that binds international students together: work visas. The government in power sets the template of immigration and work visas for internationals. The Trump Administration has made changes to employment laws for non-US citizens about five times in the last year, making them stricter and taking power away from employees as well as employers in being able to renew work visas unless exceptional talent in the field can be proved. Unless you win a Grammy in the aural media, don’t expect to get that O1 visa after a year of Optional Practice Training (OPT). These laws restrict international students’ ability to not only find jobs but to keep them and leads to exploitation of international workers because the ability to achieve the American Dream becomes a privilege that is out of our hands.

Unfortunately, the world is US- centric, and a lot of us (international students) come to the United States to gain a better life and education than what is available in our home countries. When every aspect of our future, from immigration laws to foreign relations depends on America, it is ignorant to not be politically aware and active. Yes, we can’t vote, and we can’t do much about not having that power, but we do have the power of an education and being part of an institution that gives us incredible access to a multitude of resources. When we don’t exercise that power to learn more about real world politics and express our opinions to get have our voices heard, we are throwing away a privilege that not many can afford. So because I can’t vote, I will do whatever I can.

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