In the Land of Freedom, I Don’t Feel Free

Shedding light on the daunting situation millions of international students living in the U.S currently face

News & Politics

It's June of 2023 here in Mexico, where the air should be thick with warmth and humidity, but instead, an unsettling chill clings to me. I'm sitting upright on a steel chair in this windowless room with the relentless air conditioner blasting frigid air straight at me. As the hours pass, I remind myself, "Just three more hours until I can call my boyfriend and cancel everything to go home." I wonder how just hours ago I was in the U.S., optimistically planning on renewing my student visa.

The irony isn't lost on me—in the land of freedom, I don't feel free.       

You see, I've found myself confined in an airport detention center. Isolated from the world, my phone and computer taken away from me by border security, treated like a criminal. Why? 

Fixing my complicated American Visa situation led me abroad to Mexico. As an international student, my journey to the United States was meant to be a pursuit of knowledge and dreams. But today, my identity is reduced to a mere question mark, subjected to intense scrutiny at every border crossing. The visa problems that haunt international students like me cast a shadow over our aspirations, reminding us that our path is fraught with uncertainty. And so few people are aware of this issue. 

International students not only enrich the academic diversity of U.S. campuses, but also make substantial economic contributions: In the 2022-23 academic year, one in 19 students in colleges were from another country — and these 1 million international students made a financial contribution of over $44 billion to the U.S. economy in 2018.

Yet, as schools and the American economy celebrate our contributions, the complex reality of international students is constantly getting ignored. And the biggest issue: Covid and rising global tensions are making things even worse. 
But how did my American visa issues lead me to a Mexican detention room?

Well. I had a very unique problem: I had legal residency in the U.S., but a freshly expired entry visa. This led to this paradoxical situation, that I needed to leave the U.S. to renew my U.S. visa at an American embassy abroad. Otherwise I could not travel anywhere.

The reason I was so desperate to get a new entry visa and be able to leave and re-enter the U.S. again was simple: I had a lingering ache in my heart. I hadn't seen my parents in my home country for four long years. Moreover, my grandfather had recently been diagnosed with stage four cancer, adding urgency to my desire to visit him one last time.

Since Covid, you can renew your visa in any country — and the closest solution for me was the U.S. embassy in Mexico City. Little did I know that this trip would become a nightmare.

As I approached the Mexican border in the airport, brimming with anticipation, my entry was denied. I stood there in shock, not fully comprehending what had just happened. Today I understand how it looked: Why would a Chinese student that just graduated travel to Mexico for a few days without an American visa? If she can’t re-enter the U.S., is she trying to stay illegally in Mexico? How would they understand that I can legally live in the U.S., but not leave the country?

In the blink of an eye, Mexican officials took away my phone and passport. Despite all the appeals, despite me trying to explain my complicated situation — all I got was silence, as I was transferred to the detention center, into a room full of strangers.

It was unlike anything I had seen before. Metal shelves stood tall, while bunk beds were arranged against the wall. Security cameras in every corner, but no privacy, no natural light, no clocks, no chance to explain yourself. 

Silence enveloped the room. The eerie void gave me hope that I might still appeal my case. Yet, it also left me in despair that I couldn’t find an easy way out. I remembered how friends' visa problems had put them in similar situations. Some even at the U.S. border. 

Visa problems are a huge issue among international students and things are getting worse. Just ask the 300,000 Chinese students living in the U.S. as tensions between the two countries continue to rise. Ask students from Ukraine and Russia or from the Middle East.

While international students dream of learning and contributing, states like Florida pass measures that impose restrictions on public universities and colleges to prohibit them from accepting grants or engaging in partnerships with individuals or schools from seven countries, including China. It's a story that unfolds against a backdrop of global politics, where individual dreams are woven into the fabric of international relations. And looking at the 2024 election, it sadly seems like none of these issues will be tackled any time soon.

After 16 long hours, I was finally placed on a plane, heading back home to California. What got me out of this room of horror and made me re-enter the U.S. was a determined effort while I was cut away from the world, with dozens of friends and family members trying everything they could to release me with the help of journalists, lawyers, my university and embassy officials. 

This time, I was fortunate — but the future remains a nebulous challenge not just for me, but for all who share this turbulent quest and the immense pain of uncertainty and exclusion.