By Siobhan Neela-Stock, Medill, Immigrant Connect
It should have been simple. All she was doing was planning to visit her family.
But for Emma*, it was anything but simple to return to Uruguay. Her grandmother was not well and she missed her older sister, who had just given birth to a second child. So she considered the trip a necessary risk.
She took precautions in preparation. The 20-year-old scrubbed her social media sites, choosing a pseudonym and changing other personal details, after hearing about immigrants being questioned in airports with information gleaned from their social media accounts.
Her fears are not unfounded.
In September, media outlets reported that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) would begin collecting social media information in October from immigrants, permanent residents and naturalized citizens entering the country. The information includes social media handles, aliases and even search results. The new policy was set to go into effect on the same day that the Trump administration’s new travel ban on citizens of seven countries and restrictions on those from two others was set to begin. The notice released by DHS updated the Privacy Act of 1974.
The move has been criticized by the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups. In a statement, the ACLU said the action will infringe upon freedom of speech on social media and is an ineffective national security strategy. It adds another layer to the Trump administration’s “anti-immigrant agenda,” the ACLU charged.
Following the updated policy, Emma’s social media alias could be used against her.
The Trump administration has fostered a culture of fear for people like Emma, as his administration targets immigrants who have not committed crimes. Although President Obama was branded “deporter in chief” by immigrant advocates, his administration focused on deporting immigrants who had been convicted of crimes, rather than deporting immigrants with no criminal history or preventing people from entering and leaving the country. In 2009, the first year of Obama’s presidency, 51 percent of immigrants removed from the U.S. had been convicted of serious crimes, as defined by the DHS. In 2016, that number had increased to 90 percent.
Though Emma has lived in the U.S. since she was 13, she keeps the connection to her Uruguayan roots by listening to Uruguayan and Argentinian radio channels. On the radio stations, she’s heard stories of people being harassed at the border and being tricked into signing papers to give up their residency after being questioned for hours.
She is in the U.S. as a conditional permanent resident. Her green card is valid for two years. The two years are rapidly coming to a close, and she is in the process of applying for permanent residency.
As it turned out, Emma had no problem when she returned to the U.S. She passed through immigration without being taken aside, though she said, “It was really nerve-wracking waiting in line. A couple of times that I’ve traveled to Uruguay, the people in front of me have been taken away. They’ve asked them to follow them into a room and they don’t come back.”
She had planned for a friend to show up at the U.S. airport where her plane landed and pretend her friend’s baby was hers in case she had trouble.
This is just one example of how the Trump administration has created uncertainty and fear in the lives of immigrants and international students in the U.S.
Eish Sumra, 22, is also trying to stay one step ahead of the Trump administration’s proposed and implemented policies. He was born and raised in a town outside London. His college choices in the Europe felt limited, as most European universities require students to remain committed to the subject area they choose. Universities in the U.S., on the other hand, offer more freedom to students if they want to divert from their major later on in their college career.
Sumra knew he wanted that freedom and came to the U.S. to pursue it. As a senior at Northwestern University, he is studying journalism and says he fell into it. Though he always loved journalism, he never envisioned studying it. However, once he got accepted into Medill, Northwestern’s journalism school, he realized he really enjoyed the work.
A lot has changed since Sumra entered Northwestern four years ago. The United Kingdom and the U.S. have both experienced massive shifts in political leadership. In a referendum, a majority of U.K. citizens voted to break away from the European Union in June 2016. Shortly after the vote, the U.K.’s Prime Minister David Cameron resigned. Theresa May replaced him and is seen by many as intentionally reversing Cameron’s political positions. Five months later, Donald Trump was elected president of the U.S., a result most polls and pundits did not predict. Like May, Trump is seen by many as set on rolling back his predecessor’s accomplishments.
Sumra feels his work opportunities in the U.S. are limited. Sumra is concerned that American companies have become hesitant to sponsor international workers since Trump’s election, and although he hopes to work in the U.S. after graduation, he is skeptical it will happen. “His [Trump’s] rhetoric has caused many major companies to say no on the entry level jobs, said Sumra. “We will not sponsor you if you’re a foreigner,”
Sumra referenced Facebook as an example. He said all of the positions at Facebook he has tried to apply to have said applicants must be U.S. citizens. Many of Sumra’s classmates who are not U.S. citizens and who graduated last year from Northwestern are “very scared about the (H1-B) lottery.”
The H-1B program “allows companies in the United States to temporarily employ foreign workers,” according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website. Workers must have a bachelor’s degree or higher. There is a cap on the number of foreign workers accepted under the program, and Congress sets the cap. The regular cap for fiscal year 2018 (workers with non-advanced degrees) is set at 65,000 and the master’s exemption (workers with U.S. master’s degrees) is set at 20,000.
In line with his “America First” rhetoric, Trump has been very critical of the H-1B program.
Sumra noted the difference between the companies that are sponsoring foreign workers and those that are not: “A lot of the larger companies seem to be weirdly not hiring foreign students. I think they’re just scared of putting all that energy to be disappointed. I think they know since they’re so big, it won’t affect them.”
Beyond work opportunities in the U.S., Sumra noticed that even flying into the U.S. is different now that Trump is president. His mother recently visited him while he was interning in New York. He remembers her saying she could tell when she was going through immigration that she was in Trump’s America. Longer waiting times and the types of questions asked by immigration officials are something his mother said stood out, he said. Sumra said his mother was asked if she was bringing money into the country and if she was bringing her son money or items from home. When he flew into the U.S., Sumra was asked detailed questions about where he studies in the U.S. and he said immigration officials were more skeptical of his credentials allowing him to study in the U.S.
A job in Europe is no longer Sumra’s backup plan. Uncertainty has made him more realistic. “The more and more I think about it, the more and more I reckon I’m probably going to have to start off back home in the U.K. or Europe. But ideally, I’d be in the U.S. short term. That was always my goal to stay here for a few years.”
*Emma’s name is a pseudonym. She agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity as she fears her information could be used against her or her family by the Trump administration.