Extra Baggage: The Difficulties Graduate Students and Postdocs Face Navigating Columbia on a Visa
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Written by Bingxuan Wang

Edited by Gavrielle Jacobovitz, Julian Shen-Berro

Graphics by Jason Kao

Illustration by Claire Easton

In the summer of 2017, Hooshmand Shokri Razaghi, then an Iranian third-year Ph.D. student in Columbia’s computer science department, decided to complete an express entry application to receive permanent Canadian residency. Part of his application, called “landing,” required him to fly to Canada and interview with the Canada Border Services Agency. Since Shokri Razaghi was only given one year to complete this interview, he would have to travel to Canada before finishing his Ph.D. program.

But Shokri Razaghi was nervous about how long the trip would take. Like many other graduate students from Iran, he had been issued a single-entry visa by the U.S. government five years ago when he applied to Columbia as a master’s student. The “single-entry” visa, as its name suggests, expires once the visitor steps across customs. In other words, if a visa-holder leaves the country, they must apply for a new visa in order to return.

The fear of visa renewal application rejections has caused some Iranian students to choose not to leave the U.S. throughout the entire duration of their academic programs. In tandem, tourist visas have been indefinitely withheld from Iranian citizens following President Trump’s implementation of a travel ban in January 2017, which prohibited people from seven Muslim-majority countries who don’t have citizenship in the U.S. from entering the country. According to the Presidential Proclamation 9645 signed in September of the same year, Iranian nationals are still denied U.S. visas, except for student and exchange visitor visas. For Iranian international students in the U.S., this can mean being unable to see their families for some six or seven years.

Even after Trump’s initial executive order was replaced by a less restrictive one in March of 2018, which allowed for the issuance of student and exchange visitor visas to Iranians, Shokri Razaghi still knew of cases where it was taking longer for eligible applicants to get U.S. visas.

The University was aware of the risk the travel ban represented for international students. “ISSO warns students and scholars from countries identified under President Trump’s Executive Orders and Proclamation (sometimes referred to as “travel bans”) that they should not travel abroad unless it is absolutely necessary to do so,” David Austell, associate provost and director of the International Students and Scholars Office, writes in an email to The Eye.

Before leaving, unsure of how long it would take him to get a visa from the U.S. Consulate in Toronto to return to New York and nervous about President Trump’s new policies, Shokri Razaghi reached out to the ISSO. The office supports international students in all undergraduate and graduate schools at Columbia; services include visa-related, financial, and logistical assistance, and offers a 24/7 emergency call list for international students facing difficulties obtaining their visas or entering the US.

After his visa interview at the U.S. Consulate in Toronto, Shokri Razaghi was told through email by the Consulate that his application would need to undergo a procedure called “administrative processing,” a form of background check. “This is kind of a black hole,” Shokri Razaghi says.

Administrative processing, opaquely defined by the U.S. government, is meant to ensure that the visa applicant poses no security or related risks to the country. In academia, administrative processing is often used to prevent the transfer of core technologies and intellectual properties to other countries. The first time Shokri Razaghi applied for a visa, this process took seven weeks. This time, it took over six months.

A bowl of globe stress-balls in the ISSO office. Photo: Lula O'Donnell for Columbia Daily Spectator

In 2017-2018, Columbia hosted more than 14,000 international students and scholars, the fourth highest among U.S. institutions, and the most in the Ivy League. But international graduate students and postdocs on a visa face significant impediments to life in and after academia, leading to challenging travel schedules, limited career prospects, and heightened consequences for leaving their positions, potentially exacerbating imbalanced power dynamics in research environments.

Subject to government-imposed policies and restrictions, Columbia’s administration is limited in the support they can give. Since the federal government lays down the groundwork for visa policies, a university’s main capability lies not in challenging federal policies, but in reforming its own policies to alleviate structural discrimination and barriers that international graduate students and postdocs face. But even within these confines, some students and union advocates question whether the University is doing enough.

Delayed Processing

During the six months Shokri Razaghi waited for a visa to reenter the U.S., he gave up his apartment in Manhattan and paused his academic career, all while mourning the death of his father back home, who passed away one week before Shokri Razaghi left for Canada.

Shokri Razaghi tells me that he could not know what exactly lengthened the process to such an extent—he wasn’t sure if there were more extensive federal processes in place or if the staff size at U.S. Consulates was reduced—for him, it just meant an unreasonably long wait time, so long that he could not plan for anything in the future.

But Shokri Razaghi’s experience is not unique to Iranians. When Jiayang Hu, a Chinese fifth-year Ph.D. student in the applied physics and applied mathematics department, renewed his visa in China in 2016, he waited for five weeks for it to be approved. This would mean arriving back later than his advisor had expected.

When Hu started his master’s program at Columbia in 2013, the first F-1 visa he received was effective for one year. Not needing to go through administrative processing, it took him only one week to get his visa. In 2016, two years after his former visa had expired, Hu went back to China to visit his family. He submitted his visa renewal application to the U.S. Consulate the first business day after landing, but was told during the interview that his application would go through administrative processing, like Shokri Razaghi’s had. Hu believes that the word “nano” in his field of research, “nanoparticle self-assembly,” may have alerted the U.S. government, even though he does not consider the subject sensitive.

According to a report from the American Immigration Lawyers Association, although administrative processing was already in place long before 2017, there has been an increase in the number of visa applications referred to administrative processing as well as a lengthening of the time these cases remain in processing. In a report from The Guardian, Masume Assaf, Director of International Student & Scholar Advising at Penn State University, notes that applicants from China and Middle East countries are increasingly subjected to administrative processes.

“My advisor was pissed, because I was stuck in China for five weeks,” Hu tells me. Hu’s academic field requires working on-site. After being in China for more than three weeks, Hu started to feel bothered. His leave was extending beyond the vacation time he and his advisor agreed upon, and he could not perform his essential responsibilities as a student.

When his advisor asked Hu when he would come back, Hu replied that he didn’t know, since the U.S. government wouldn’t tell him how long. Four to eight weeks is a basic estimation, Hu says, but he has heard of cases that have lasted longer than nine weeks.

Jiayang Hu. Photo: Bingxuan Wang for Columbia Daily Spectator

Four and a half weeks after submitting his application, Hu received another one-year visa to return to New York. But ever since his second visa expired in 2017, Hu has not traveled outside the U.S., fearing another lengthy wait for a visa renewal.

In recent years, Hu’s predicament has become increasingly prevalent among Chinese international students. Last June, the U.S. Department of State shortened the visa duration for Chinese graduate students studying aviation, high-tech manufacturing, and robotics to just one year, with the chance to reapply every year, revoking a policy from the Obama government that allowed Chinese citizens to secure five-year student visas.

When asked to comment on the “counterintelligence risk” posed by Chinese students to U.S. national security at a Senate hearing in February 2018, Christopher A. Wray, the director of the F.B.I., claimed that the Bureau observed the “use of nontraditional collectors, especially in the academic setting.”

President Bollinger addressed the FBI’s suspicion of Chinese students in a recent fireside chat, where he defended transparency in academia and the value of “bringing in the best and most talented people all over the world,” but also emphasized the University’s commitment to preventing the theft of intellectual property.

Throughout nearly the past two decades, Columbia’s international population has been steadily increasing. But this wasn’t always the case.The increase in Columbia’s international population may be attributed in part to President Bollinger’s wide-ranging efforts to increase Columbia’s global presence. In an interview with Columbia College Today in 2013, President Bollinger emphasized the University’s commitment to recruiting “students from around the world.”

For this sizeable international population, Columbia’s ISSO offers informational, counseling, and documentation services for a wide array of issues that concern the international community of Columbia, such as travel, employment, and taxes.

Source: National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics

When it comes to applying for a visa to attend Columbia, ISSO plays a crucial role in providing the documents required by the visa application, mainly Form I-20 for students on F-1 status and Form DS-2019 for exchange scholars on J-1 status. ISSO also sends regular newsletters to the international members of Columbia containing news, announcements, breakdowns of immigration-related issues, and information about ISSO-sponsored events. These newsletters highlight important deadlines and actions that need to be taken in order to maintain or make changes to students’ visa status. Last November, the office expanded its hours and hired more staff to meet the increasing demand.

But ISSO is limited by the law. Alan Hyde, professor of law at Rutgers University and an expert in labor and immigration law, tells me that there is little a university can do to affect the pace of visa processing.

International Students & Scholars Office Building. Photo: Lula O'Donnell for Columbia Daily Spectator

“[The university] can’t get you a visa,” Hyde says, “They can admit a student or not admit the student. Then the students apply for visas, saying ‘I’ve been accepted at Columbia to this graduate program.’ The University doesn’t have any further input at that point. The government doesn't check back with Columbia.”

Thomas Sirinides, the director of International Student Services at NYU, says that a university can only provide the document that proves a student or scholar’s acceptance into and source of funding for an academic program. After the applicant submits their application materials to the Consulate at their visa appointment, the rest of the process is left to the discretion of the U.S. government.

David Wilks, an employment and immigration lawyer, acknowledges that there was already an “exceptional level of vetting” in place prior to Trump, but the current administration is pushing the Department of State even further. “It’s very difficult, once you’re in administrative processing, to get out of it,” Wilks says.

When I ask Sirinides about NYU’s procedures for helping students stuck abroad due to delays in visa issuance, he acknowledges that a university’s power is limited. At NYU, the university may contact a member of Congress or a senator to advocate for the student to the Consulate, and may also help the student contact the Consulate and ask what documents the government needs. “For whatever reason, [the government is] looking at this record, and we just have to wait until they decide yes or they decide no,” Sirinides says.

According to Wilks, applicants dealing with delays in administrative processing can try to get in touch with the Consulate to talk to somebody and figure out what’s going on; “Because it’s a bit of a black box when you’re trying to get a consulate to move on a visa,” he says.

Beyond issues with obtaining and maintaining visas, international students face other logistical concerns, some of which are brought to my attention as I speak with with Olaya Fernandez Gayol and Angela Ramos Lobo, international postdocs in their first years at Columbia University Irving Medical Center.

Lobo emphasizes to me the difficulty of accessing housing in New York for international students. While Columbia does provide some housing for its postdocs, it can’t cover everyone’s needs. Housing at CUMC is only offered for the first five years and is allocated through a lottery system held every month.

Gayol was fortunate to get an apartment from Columbia, but Lobo, who did not enter the lottery, was very stressed while she searched for an apartment in New York on her own.

Whenever someone rents an apartment in New York, Lobo tells me, the first three questions they are likely asked by the broker are whether they have a credit score, earn an annual income 40 times the rent, and have a guarantor who makes 80 times the rent.

For Lobo, who had just moved to the U.S., the answers to the first two questions are “No.” One broker demanded that Lobo go through a background check, including a credit check, which cost Lobo $50. Then, the broker asked for Lobo’s offer letter from Columbia, a picture of her bank account, and checked everything she said with two of her personal contacts. After an interview with the landlord, Lobo finally got her apartment.

Álvaro Cuesta-Domínguez, a member and spokesperson of Columbia Postdoctoral Workers, the union of postdocs at Columbia, tells me that the housing resources for international postdocs at CUMC is insufficient and unsubsidized. The main residence hall for postdocs at CUMC contains 46 units, each of which houses one person. The price of University housing is roughly equal to the price of off-campus options listed on Columbia’s Off-Campus Housing Assistance website, which is the University’s resource for helping members affiliated with the University find housing in non-Columbia-owned buildings.

In its contract currently under negotiation, the union is pushing to include provisions that asks the University to compensate for all problems caused by the untimely reappointment of postdocs due to delays in paperwork processing on the University’s end, Cuesta Domínguez says.

A postdoc’s contract is one year long, and they must notify their principal investigator in advance if they wish to be reappointed; otherwise, if their previous contract expires and the paperwork for reappointment is not processed in a timely manner, they might face termination. For international postdocs, this can lead to serious consequences, since once their contract is terminated they automatically enter a grace period and can face deportation if they don’t get reappointed in time.

Álvaro Cuesta-Domínguez. Photo: Bingxuan Wang for Columbia Daily Spectator

Power Dynamics in the Lab

For an international student or postdoc, the right to stay in the U.S. is based on the contractual relationship they enter with the institution they attend. For a student, this is their full-time registration status; for a postdoc, it is the year-long, renewable contract they have with their advisor, professionally called a “principal investigator.”

At CUMC, if a PI decides not to renew their contract with a postdoc, they are required by the University to give the postdoc a notification 90 days in advance. Upon the expiration of their previous contract, the postdoc is granted a “grace period” by the government to settle their affairs and prepare to leave the U.S. For foreigners on J-1 status, the period is 30 days; for those on H-1B status, it is 60 days. During the grace period, the postdoc is not authorized for employment, so the only option is to leave the country. The Department of State website explains that, once a postdoc’s contract is terminated by the PI for “just cause,” they are expected by the government to leave the U.S. immediately.

Imbalanced power in a lab, exacerbated by the threat of visa loss, is a problem for international postdocs across the nation. The fact that international researchers rely on their PIs to maintain their visas can be exploited by PIs as leverage. Regardless of intentionality on the part of the PI, this can affect an international postdoc’s decision to report the misconduct of their PIs or superiors.

In 2012, approximately one year after she started her postdoctoral training at a lab in Columbia University Medical School, Nicole, who has been given a pseudonym for fear of retaliation, went to the University’s Ombuds Office to complain about her PI. In the first two to three months since she had arrived in the lab, Nicole’s experience working with her PI was normal. After that, however, her PI started to make the working environment increasingly intolerable for her.

Columbia University Medical Center Campus. Photo: Athena Chin for Columbia Daily Spectator

Because of the large amount of work she was assigned, Nicole worked for 12 to 13 hours per day on weekdays and only two to three hours fewer per day on weekends. Then, during lab meetings, which usually ran several hours long, she received unreasonably harsh, demeaning feedback from her PI, who she claims dismissed her work as “bullshit” and expressed distrust regarding her results. When Nicole tried to defend her ideas, she says her PI acted offended and privately accused Nicole of disrespect. But, due to its confidential nature, there was little the Ombuds Office was capable of doing to solve her problem. Though meant as a resource for workplace concerns for all members of the Columbia community, Ombuds is an “informal” resource, meaning that it does not participate in formal adjudicative or administrative procedures and any communication with the office is confidential.

In 2013, Nicole finally decided to leave her lab and look for new positions in other labs, including those at other institutions. She told her PI about her intention to find a new position, believing it would provide her PI with time to find a replacement. But shortly after, she was given a termination letter by her PI. Signing the letter meant Nicole could leave the place of all her unpleasant memories, but it also meant she had just three months to find a new position before she would be forced to leave the country due to the expiration of her contract, and consequently her visa.

Concerns over losing her visa weighed on Nicole as she considered whether or not to formally report her former PI’s bullying.

“If you’re an international [postdoc], before you go ahead and put a claim against your PI, the first thing you think about is ‘OK, my visa depends on my contract,’” Nicole says, “... And, in general, that is also one of the reasons why a lot of PIs put more pressure on internationals—because they know at some point they have some control over your life.”

Nicole signed the letter and managed, with much stress, to find a new position in a different department at Columbia in time. She had to start anew in a different field. But worse still, her nightmare didn’t stop the moment she exited her former lab: In subsequent years, Nicole claims that her authorship was either not attributed or misattributed in the research articles her former PI published and she was not notified by her former PI to review the manuscripts before they were submitted for publication. Her former PI’s alleged actions—not identifying all individuals who qualify for authorship or acknowledgment, and not letting the author review and approve the manuscript before publication—would constitute violations of the policies for publication established in the scientific community in the U.S.

The first instance occurred in 2013, when her former PI submitted a project Nicole worked on during her last three months at the lab without acknowledging her contribution. Nicole sent her former PI an email asking them to reconsider her authorship and, after receiving no reply, talked to the chair of their department. At the request of the department chair, Nicole tells me, her former PI agreed to add her name in the paper, but misspelled it and wrote in the Author Contributions section that Nicole only provided some technical help. In 2015, Nicole’s former PI submitted a paper with Nicole as an author, but according to her, they did so without notifying her first. At the time, Nicole chose not to engage in further disputes. In 2018, her former PI published the main project Nicole worked on while in their lab again without notifying her, and she felt her contribution was not fairly acknowledged by her low author position. In the roughly five and a half months that followed, Nicole talked to the chair of her former PI’s lab and a dean at CUMC.

At Nicole’s repeated requests, a committee was convened by the department chair to consider Nicole’s proper author position in the paper. But Nicole was frustrated that the committee, which was supposed to be independent and unbiased, was comprised of three faculty members in her former PI’s department, all of whom were colleagues or collaborators with Nicole’s former PI. After a month of deliberation, the committee concluded that the order of authors should stay as it was. Nicole describes the way Columbia addressed her situation as “disappointing.”

According to the Postdoctoral Offices Handbook on the official website of the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs, the offices postdocs can turn to for arbitrating cases of misconduct are the Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action Office and the University Gender Based Misconduct Office. Among the many forms of prohibited conducts defined in the policies of these two offices—such as discrimination, sexual misconduct, gender-based misconduct, retaliation, domestic violence, dating violence, stalking—there is no definition that Nicole feels corresponds with her experience: bullying that did not involve discrimination.

Postdocs at Columbia do not have a transparent and standardized grievance procedure for reporting nondiscriminatory bullying. But the avenues for reporting other issues also do not guarantee neutral, third-party arbitration, adding uncertainties to the arbitration process.

In a lead in The Eye from 2018 on sexual harassment in labs at Columbia, a former international postdoc at Columbia claims that she faced sexual harassment and stalking at the hands of a fellow postdoc in her lab at the time, “Blake.” She did not report this to the EOAA due, in part, to her fear of losing her green card. She did, however, report her experiences to her PI, who she felt “hushed hushed it.” Another international postdoc who faced Blake’s harassment years later did report to EOAA. Soon after, she was fired. The perpetrator remained in his position. It took EOAA five months, rather than a purported 45 business days, to find him guilty; the verdict came after three months throughout which the complaint and other witnesses received no update from the office.

Although graduate students at Columbia, including those at CUMC, benefit from more established grievance procedures, the arbitration process is no less susceptible to accusations of bias and lack of transparency.

In 2015, Longxi Zhao, a Chinese Ph.D. student formerly working in the chemical engineering department, was fired from his position as a teaching assistant.

His PI Scott Banta accused him of harassing others and taking unapproved vacations. Zhao used the word “fucked” in an email to apologize to students for a CourseWorks mishap (“I have to manually input all your scores because I am really fucked up with this coursework system”). Zhao had also traveled back home to China on March 13, 2015—the day before spring break—without the permission of Banta. Zhao claimed, however, to have received verbal approval from Banta in the appeal letter he wrote to Soulaymane Kachani, vice dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science, where he refuted the decision of his firing. The appeal was rejected by Kachani, who declared the decision was final.

In reaction to the administration’s response to Zhao, the Graduate Workers of Columbia-United Auto Workers—who were in the midst of an attempt to gain recognition as a union at the time—circulated a petition for Zhao to be reinstated. The petition was signed by 125 graduate student workers from 58 departments across campus and was delivered to Mary Boyce, dean of SEAS. However, the University did not reinstate Longxi as a teaching assistant, compensate for the salary he did not earn as a result of termination, or establish grievance procedures with guarantees of due process, as the petition demanded.

After being fired from his TA position, Zhao was also dismissed from the research team of Sanat Kumar, Byhovsky Professor of Chemical Engineering. Zhao’s F-1 visa wasn’t immediately terminated, but since he wasn’t able to find another advisor, he couldn’t stay in the Ph.D. program and was eventually forced to leave the country.

Even with an established grievance procedure, the process of arbitration for graduate students is entirely run by University faculty and administration. There is no neutral, third-party player that exercises adjudicative power in the entire process. For international students who experience alleged workplace injustice, their ability to defend themselves is circumscribed by the fact that they have a limited amount of time to stay in the U.S. once they are fired.

Initiatives aiming at neutral arbitration have been incorporated into the Graduate Workers Union and Columbia Postdoctoral Workers’ bargaining goals with the University. The bargaining process started this March.

Noura Farra, a member of the bargaining committee of the GWC tells me that the union’s bargaining committee wants a contract that establishes a grievance procedure which ensures neutral arbitration and an expedited grievance process that allows the student to stay in the U.S. on their visa while the grievance process is taking place.

Noura Farra. Photo: Bingxuan Wang for Columbia Daily Spectator

Nicole tells me that, whenever she sees an article online that describes issues like those she had faced, she sends it to the dean at CUMC who she had asked for help from and to the department chair who created the authorship committee for her. “I feel I have the obligation to knock on that door all the time and say ‘Hey, I’m here.’"

The Next Step

If you are an international student who wants to remain in the U.S. long-term after graduation, you have to obtain permanent residence status. A common approach is through employment, and the typical process looks like this:

By your last semester before graduation, you might have secured a job. Upon entering your position, you file an application to kick-start “Optional Practical Training,” a period of work authorization given to every international student who studies at or has graduated from an American university. The length of OPT depends on your major. With a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics major, you get three years of OPT; for all other majors you get one year. At work, you are sponsored by your company to apply once a year for an H-1B visa, for temporary foreign workers in specialty occupations. The number of H-1B visas given per year is capped at 65,000, with an extra 20,000 for holders of master’s degrees or higher; the cap exempts workers employed at institutions of higher education, among others. The application is a lottery—you have about a 30 to 50 percent chance of getting the visa in each round of applications, depending on the level of your degree. More advanced degrees lead to higher chances. After you get your H-1B, which lasts for three years, you have basically reached the gateway to all kinds of immigrant wonderlands—green card, citizenship, the “American dream.”

This generic description may already sound like a headache, but some nuances have been omitted.

Among the top 20 employers who received the most H-1B petition approvals in 2018, 17 are consulting and technology companies.

The roughly $5000 cost of sponsoring a foreign employee places a demand on the company, confining the range of choices international students have in the job market.

“H-1B [visas] are for big companies,” Hyde says, “And getting an H-1B is expensive and cumbersome. You need to apply when it opens up. You need to have a legal staff that really does nothing but your visa processing.”

Aside from allowing STEM majors an extra two years of OPT, the H-1B visa system also tends to favor industries that sustain large, resourceful companies, impacting how some international students choose their areas of study.

Source: Institute of International Education

Many of the graduate schools at Columbia have infrastructures in place to help international graduate students match with employers in the U.S. Columbia Business School, for example, has its own Career Management Center.

Michael Allen De Lucia, director of international and MS career management at the CMC describes his office’s support for international students in an email to The Eye. Initiatives to help international students get recruited include efforts to address international students’ particular needs; there are large workshops on job searching as an international student as well as niche-topic sessions which acclimate students to American culture, including topics from writing American-style thank you notes to small-talk topics like American football and politics. Columbia also offers on-campus company presentations, career fairs, industry panels, and on-site company visits. According to CBS’s brochure, school-facilitated resources led to 70 percent of the offers of the last graduate class.

Resisting Within Limits

The bargaining goals proposed by both the GWC-UAW and CPW-UAW (Columbia Postdoctoral Workers) include suggestions to address the concerns of the international community.

Since 2015, the International Students’ Working Group within the Graduate Workers Union has been actively working behind international graduate student workers. They have organized a series of rallies, petitions, and educational workshops including workshops on visa and immigration issues, launched a successful petition, in cooperation with the Graduate Student Advisory Council, to the dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences that created fifteen $3000 fellowships annually for international students in the humanities and social sciences, and rallied behind Zhao for his reinstatement.

The group published a list of demands on the University when Trump’s travel ban was first legislated, which included free summer housing for students affected by travel restrictions, free legal service, and the establishment of an emergency fund. Farra tells me that the Graduate Workers Union would like to see the University publically committing itself to providing legal and financial assistance for international students affected by the ban.

Ongoing bargaining efforts will offer the union a platform to advance these goals.

Farra expresses concerns with the University’s case-by-case approach to addressing problems: “There is no way that we can know whether all the students were contacted, whether somebody who was affected still has a problem, whether their needs were addressed or not, whether, if they were stuck out of the country, they were able to come back in.”

Bargaining goals—including more University support for preparing applicants for visa-related processes, providing affordable housing, and establishing a fair and expedited grievance procedure for addressing workplace harassment and bullying—aim to alleviate the anxiety of international students and postdoctoral students caused by their visa status.

Given that both negotiations are expected to last into 2020, the outcome remains to be seen.

Students can also pursue University policy reforms through other channels. The student governments and councils at Columbia’s graduate schools offer suggestions to administrators that represent the interest of graduate students in different schools, though they lack the union’s power to negotiate with the University through bargaining.

The student council equivalent for postdocs is the Columbia University Postdoctoral Society, which has outlined a concrete set of goals for advocacy, including more affordable housing options for international students and a more efficient and secure reappointment process meant to avoid termination instances of international postdocs—instances where they are unknowingly terminated due to delays in the completion of paperwork and forced into the post-termination grace period.

The University can protect students from losing their registration status because of visa delays, but it is the Department of Homeland Security that determines how long it takes for a visa to be processed. Columbia can expand career-related resources, but it is the federal government who stipulates work authorization policies for foreign citizens.

But the University has publicly and vocally challenged federal policies on immigration and visas in the past.

In November 2016, John Coatsworth, the provost of Columbia University, announced the University’s plan to provide sanctuary and financial support for undocumented students. The plan, sent in an email to the Columbia community, promised that the University would expand financial aid to undocumented immigrants and would not share information on their immigration status with immigration officials unless required by subpoena or court order, or authorized by the student.

More recently, following Trump’s January 2017 travel ban, President Bollinger denounced the order in an email he sent to the University, where he criticized the policy as “discriminatory [and] damaging.” In February, Columbia, along with 15 other top American universities, filed an amicus brief, a document filed by someone who isn’t the plaintiff but interested in a case to provide additional information to the court, to challenge the travel ban in Darweesh v. Trump, a case questioning the legality of detaining two Iraqis traveling into the U.S. following the signing of the travel ban.

A private actor must be harmed by a federal policy in order to sue, Wilks stresses, when I ask him about a university’s capacity to challenge federal policies. In the case of the travel ban, Columbia’s interest might have been harmed by being unable to bring in all students who were admitted. But federal courts cannot review the consulate officer’s decision at a visa interview and it is difficult to litigate the number of working visas offered, since it is a benefit provided by the government.

But a university can still shape its own policies within the constraints of federal policies. “Those laws would be the foundation, and then the university would make the decision of how to build their policy up from that foundation,” Wilks says.

Near the end of our interview, I ask Hu what other aspects of his life are influenced by his visa status. “To me and my family, now I have to call my mom and dad to travel here,” he says, “That’s good and bad.”

“The good thing is, they can take advantage of this opportunity to travel. The bad thing is, I can’t go home.”

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