Presumed Guilty: Being an International Student

Three years ago, I came to the United States and started my study here. I chose to come to the U.S. because it was said to be the freest nation in the world, because the U.S. Constitution says everyone can enjoy equal rights. But after being here for three years, I found out that those things I believed were totally wrong.
As an international student, I am a minority of the minority here. I was always ignored and discriminated. Many times, I found myself presumed guilty even though U.S. Civil Rights states that ‘a person is presumed innocent until he/she is proven guilty.’
Actually, since my parents decided to send me to study in the U.S., I had already been presumed guilty by the United States government. The first time I went to apply for a visa in the U.S. consulate in Guangzhou, China, the visa official asked me, ‘What are you going to do in the United States?’ I replied, ‘I want to study in U.S.A. because the education system there is much better than the one in China … ‘
Even before I finished, the official interrupted, with a cold look on her face, ‘Why would I trust you? Why would I believe that you are not trying to immigrate to the United States?’
What could I say? What should I reply? Why shouldn’t she trust me? All I wanted was to be a student in the United States. I had all the legal documents with me. I didn’t commit any kind of crime in China. Why wouldn’t she trust me?
Feeling disrespected, I forced myself to go on answering her question, ‘Since my parents are all in China and I am the only child in the family, of course I will come back after I finish my study … ‘
Again, she interrupted rudely, ‘That doesn’t make me trust you.’ I was angry, but what else could I do? I had to withhold my anger, forced myself to be nice and patient, and keep on proving that I was not ‘guilty.’
Finally, I got my visa, but I was sad and angry. I wanted to cry. The first time ever in my life, I felt discriminated against; the first time ever in my life, I had to prove myself ‘innocent.’ How could they do that to a 16-year-old boy who only wanted to be an international student in the U.S.? Was this what they called Civil Rights?
Eventually, I came here. I felt so lucky because I had a chance to receive the best education in the world. However, the inequalities still exist. For example, international students are paying $21,000 a year for tuition while the residents here are paying only $4,000. We are not allowed to get a job outside of school.
Every day, I tried to persuade myself that these restrictions were reasonable. I had to tell myself that ‘they charge me more money because my parents do not pay tax here, that is reasonable.’ But is five times more a reasonable amount?
Also, ‘they do not allow me to get a job because they want to save the jobs for the citizens. That is reasonable.’ I understand, because I am an international student here. I have to accept all this. But one time, I really couldn’t persuade myself to accept this anymore.
In March 2003, I received an e-mail from my school asking me to join a program called SAGE. Basically, this program invited students who had an excellent academic standing, namely a 3.3 GPA, to participate in an internship program.
Students could not only apply the knowledge they learned from school but also get work experience and scholarships from this program if they got accepted. I was excited about this program, so I filled out the form and went to apply the next day.
I thought I could at least get an interview opportunity, but the first sentence I heard from the lady in the front desk was, ‘Sorry, you are not allowed to do this since you are an international student.’
‘But why? I have a 3.9 GPA.’
‘Because you are not a citizen.’
I didn’t understand. I paid more tuition than the citizens but I still couldn’t get the same opportunities they got. What could I do? I could only watch my friends enjoy their freedom at school. Each time people asked me why didn’t I join program A or program B, I had to explain, ‘I cannot do that because I am an international student.’ And the response was the same every time: ‘That sucks.’
However, that is not the whole story; I still have to face much more. Even my responsibility of being a son was ‘regulated’ by the U.S. government.
As the only child in my family, I love my parents; and my parents love me deeply also. They have spent most of their savings to support my education here. They worry about my health, they worry about my safety, they worry about my everything. They don’t ask for anything back; they just want to see me once a year. In my opinion, this is the minimum a parent can ask a son to do. But I cannot even fulfill their minimum will because I am afraid of going back.
Each time I go back to China, I have to get a new visa stamp. That means there might be a risk that I will not get one. And each time I go to the interview, I have to prove that I am ‘innocent’ again. I have to explain to that cold face again and again that the only reason I go to the U.S. is to study. Rather than an interview, it is more like an interrogation. But I am not a criminal; I am an innocent international student. What happens if I don’t get a visa renewal?
I have a friend, Jenny, who went back to China last year to visit her family. Before she came back, she was a junior in her university, and her parents had spent over $120,000 on her education. But she didn’t get a visa renewal because the official in the consulate said she had ‘the intention to migrate to U.S.A.’ Consequently, she didn’t finish her undergraduate courses in the U.S.
I found this ridiculous. The U.S. government rejected many visa applications because they didn’t want too many people to immigrate to the U.S., but in the meantime, this policy prevented many international students from going back to their own country for a visit. I don’t understand; what does the U.S. government want us to do? Could they please just treat us as international students rather than ‘criminals’?
In fact, international students contribute tens of billions of U.S dollars to the U.S. economy each year, and most of these students just want to study here. However, many of us are discriminated against. The U.S government presumes that we will not leave the U.S. after we finish our study. This presumption violates the Civil Rights which state that ‘a person is presumed innocent unless he/she is proven guilty.’
In order to study in the United States, we have spent a lot of money. We don’t mind being charged five times more for the tuition compared to the domestic students; we don’t mind being excluded from certain programs that are restricted to citizens only, but we want the U.S. government to see us as students instead of ‘criminals.’ We hope that we can go home and visit our family without taking the risk of not being able to come back.
Please, Uncle Sam, we are innocent!

Hill Liu is an international student from China.