When University of Georgia student Nicole Gárcia Sánchez left Venezuela in 2017, the country was experiencing an ongoing human rights and political crisis. Still today, conflict between two leaders fighting for power and the shortages of medicine and food have led thousands of Venezeulans to flee the country.
This year, Venezuela faces a new crisis — COVID-19. As of July 17, the country has 10,428 confirmed cases, according to the World Health Organization. Human Rights Watch and Johns Hopkins University’s Centers for Public Health and Human Rights and for Humanitarian Health said the country was “grossly” unprepared for COVID-19, which jeopardizes the health of Venezuelans.
For García Sánchez, Venezuela is home. The country in crisis is where her parents, family and friends reside. On July 6, following an announcement from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, García Sánchez thought she would be sent back to Venezuela. Although the directive was later rescinded on July 14, the possibility of being deported worried her.
“I can’t go back,” García Sánchez, a sophomore public relations major, said. “Venezuela doesn’t have enough doctors [or] medicine. People are dying of hunger and now the virus too.”
ICE previously announced that international students taking a fully online semester would not be able to renew their F-1 and M-1 visas. Students with all-online classes would have had to leave the country, transfer to an institution with in-person classes or face deportation.
The University System of Georgia is currently planning for in-person classes, but that is subject to change based on how COVID-19 looks in the fall.
Last fall, García Sánchez enrolled in UGA as an international student, spending over $40,000 in fees and tuition and leaving her family in Venezuela.She said she came to study in the U.S. for the same reason many students from a country in crisis do — to find opportunities not offered at home. As an orientation leader, García Sánchez met Julie Kettle, a fellow international student from Australia.
García Sánchez chose UGA for the warm weather, cheaper cost of living and career opportunities. Kettle, who was born in Brazil but moved to Australia at 13, came to the university for the public relations program and to expose herself to a new culture.
Now president of UGA’s Hispanic Student Association, García Sánchez has created a “home away from home” in Athens. Kettle wanted the “full college experience” and received just that — she’s created her own community, jobs and relationships.
“I’ve never been happier,” Kettle, a sophomore intended public relations major, said. “All the money and the struggle of being away from home, for me, it’s worth it to be this happy.”
A threat to international students
ICE’s July 6 directive threatened to break the community Kettle and García Sánchez built at UGA.
UGA spokesperson Greg Trevor said UGA’s plan to offer in-person classes, with a hybrid plan for “some remote classes,” didn’t conflict with ICE’s directive. He also said UGA’s Office of Global Engagement was in contact with international students.
Kettle said she did not receive any emails from the Office of Global Engagement between July 6-14 when the ICE rule was still active.
“Because there is some uncertainty as to the final implementation of the temporary rule, we will continue to actively monitor the situation. As always, we will continue to provide ongoing support and assistance to all of our students, including our international students,” Trevor said in an email to The Red & Black.
Soon after the July 6 announcement, Kimberly Lopez, a UGA master of public administration candidate, and Jeremiah de Sesto wondered why the university and other organizations hadn’t put out a statement in support of international students. Together, they formed the International Student Alliance in the University System of Georgia, in order to call for justice for international students facing deportation.
“As a first-generation Filipino American, born and raised in the Philippines, my parents gave up everything for a chance for me to have a quality education in the United States,” de Sesto, a sophomore international affairs major, said. “I empathize with these international students, who like me, were exposed to something so foreign and so different.”
Although the Trump administration eventually rescinded the rule, ISA member Atithi Patel said the university’s response showed a lack of support and understanding for international students. ISA hopes to create a forum for international students to lean on each other in the future,” Patel said.
In the aftermath of the directive’s reversal, García Sánchez said she feels like she can’t say the wrong thing or make a mistake without the risk of being sent back to Venezuela. She’s part of the International Student Advisory Board and last week spoke to members about the risks of her joining one of the Black Lives Matter protests in Atlanta.
The board told her she had to be careful because if immigration showed up or if the country felt she was causing trouble, they could deport her.
“I have a life here, I paid thousands in tuition here, so the fact that I could get deported for calling for the arrest of Breonna Taylor’s killers is frustrating,” García Sánchez said.
In Kettle’s case, Australia is not a country under crisis but does have fewer COVID-19 cases than the U.S. Being forced to return home meant the possibility of infecting her family and leaving behind her boyfriend and close friends.
The pandemic coupled with ICE’s original directive reminded Kettle of her inability to make long-term plans due to her status in the U.S. She said there is nothing to stop ICE or the Trump administration from attempting to deport international students again under different circumstances.
Kettle has lived in Brazil, Australia and now the U.S. She said the U.S. is where she’s had the most opportunities but has felt the most unwelcome.
The question “Can they deport me?” follows García Sánchez and Kettle in their minds every day.
García Sánchez said the racism she’s experienced as a Latina and seen in other minority communities in the U.S. is “heartbreaking.” She said going from a country under dictatorship to a country where you’re not always welcomed is difficult. However, she’ll take the hardships and the challenges in the U.S. in order to keep the home and opportunities she’s created here.
Kettle said being an international student is a privilege and a gift for the student but also for the university. Despite what grades a student has or what country they come from, Kettle said an international student has the right to stay and study without needing to defend why.
“I’m tired of having to defend why I’m here, why I have another home here,” Kettle said. “It’s hard to constantly have to prove yourself.”
This article is the first installment of the “Minority Report” series, where The Red & Black documents minority voices and the experiences that affect their community. To be a part of this series or to send a tip, reach out to Gabriela Miranda at email@example.com.