Abdul Nahidi is a psychology student at United States International University, but his face could belong to a professional mime. When he talks, his dark visage melts into one rubbery mask after another. Now he is talking about whether he will ever go home to Iran. First he nods sagely and slyly squints his dark brown eyes, then those eyes pop open wide to mirror astonishment. He broadly mugs, relaxing into a joyful grin. He needs a multitude of expressions to convey the chaotic experience of being a foreign student in San Diego — and of facing the trauma of returning to the country which spawned him.
These days. Abdul announces dramatically, he is thinking he probably will return to Iran.
Yet he already is thirty-seven years old. and it’s clear he hasn't made a final decision. The Iranian has postponed deciding for nine years now, ever since he first set foot on American soil at the age of twenty-eight. when he never dreamt he'd stay as long as he has. Back then, he figured he'd polish off his master’s degree and leave, but somehow the years slipped by.
The master's degree led inexorably to the doctorate; he never even could scrape together enough money for a visit home; and now his mother’s sense of betrayal over his extended absence has deepened to the point where it probably never will be erased, he confides sadly. So with the completion of his dissertation finally looming, family pressures are intense, and other cultural ties pull Abdul back toward Persia. He says he'd have no trouble finding work there, since the country’s swollen cities particularly need psychologists. Yet his mental debate over staying rages.
Abdul’s dilemma is typical. San Diego’s classrooms house more than 2,000 foreign students, a fraction of at least a half-million scattered across U.S. campuses like some grassroots United Nations. None of those students is supposed to think about staying here, since when they pass through America’s portals they're supposed to understand that they’ll eventually have to pack up their degrees and go home. All receive warnings that their chances of winning permanent residence are almost nil. Yet the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) estimates more than half of them nonetheless contemplate staying at some point or other. If they can’t make it legally, many embrace life as educated illegal aliens.
“So you have this great gray mass of former students out there somewhere. Who really has any idea of how many there are?” one local dean of foreign students asks despairingly. “Ten years ago, it was very easy for foreign students to get a green card, but now the INS has really tightened up.” The local INS office blindly estimates maybe 200,000 former foreign students have indeed disappeared into the woodwork, but since no one checks, no one really knows. Universities refuse responsibility for ushering their graduates to the airport; the immigration service pleads lack of manpower to police the campuses. Compounding the problem, the ranks of foreign students have ballooned in the last four to five years, up an estimated sixty percent nationally.
That wave of growth has washed over San Diego. Four years ago, UCSD’s foreign enrollment hovered in the high 200s; now the school counts almost 400. That same year San Diego State had only 281 foreign students, whereas now it boasts about 600. Most dramatic has been United States International University’s foreign student body growth: this year about 750 young people from all over the globe converged on the Miramar campus, compared to about 500 last year and a mere 250 the year before that. The latter school even has made a concerted effort to recruit foreign students, one of the phenomena responsible for the national foreign students’ boom.
Such recruitment particularly has emerged at smaller schools hard-pressed by declining enrollments, where administrators have targeted the newly rich oil-producing countries as a source of wealthy clients (occasionally downplaying academic standards along the way). USIU administrators deny that they’ve specifically hustled wealthy Arab students; but the San Diego campus did hire a professional foreign recruiter for a while, and USIU officials freely admit “it’s the policy and philosophy of this university to increase foreign enrollments. It's a policy that we're all international on this globe and that we want to foster that feeling.” Whether or not they've actively sought foreign students, most schools acknowledge that petro-dollars now are opening the doors of many American schools to a host of previously untutored Third World residents.
Thus Iran boasts by far the greatest number of foreign students in the United States, followed by Taiwan, Nigeria, Canada, Hong Kong, India, Vietnam, Japan, Mexico, Thailand, Venezuela. A variety of motives draws the young people to this country. Western Europeans primarily seek study in specific fields like computer programming or business, in which the United States has a reputation for pre-eminence. Students from developing countries often come because their homelands lack any schools to accommodate them, while for still others, “it's simply the thing to do,’’ one counselor explains. “In many countries like Thailand an American degree is a very prestigious thing. For wealthy families, sending their kid over here can be a status symbol.”
Regardless of why they come, most foreign students face drastic changes when they get here, and Third World students in particular suffer the pangs of culture shock. Ironically, the experience of that culture shock eventually makes many students want to stay. “Once they’ve made the adjustment to this culture, the trauma is often worse going back to their own countries, and many students just don’t want to go through it again.”
Consider the case of Abdul at USIU. “There are people who are culturally oriented, and I am one of them,” the talkative Ph D. candidate asserts. “But Western culture is different from Eastern culture, and somehow I can’t completely adapt to it.” Sitting in a quiet study room next to the psychology department, he is generous about sharing his experience. He says, “These traits here like efficiency, aggressiveness, all the compulsive desire to work ... I do not really like all these things. Also I love Iranian poetry and music! I love Iranians. I can relate to them very well. Here in America, you go into a bar and it is pathetic,” he continues. “Maybe ten people sitting around in an alcoholic stupor. They are all terribly alone. In my country, it is totally different and that is one of the things I love most. You go in a cafe and people are drinking, they shout, they are hugging each other. Everyone is so happy! If I go back. I would spend more time in cafes!” He would face a pleasanter old age, he informs his listener. “You Americans do not treat your old people right. Here, age is just like a curse. In Iran, one thing that is much better than here is they respect experience. Americans respect only efficiency.” But countering the negatives, Abdul rhapsodizes over some aspects of America.
“You have one thing that is very precious,” he pronounces emphatically. “In America, you respect human beings. You can be walking down a street and see someone, and whoever he is, if he is a general in the army or if he is a dishwasher, nobody gives a damn. The first thing I noticed here was there is a tremendous freedom. Also, if you are intelligent and have perseverance enough, you can make it."
These days, Abdul muses that “the memory of my country is like a chronic pain. You get used to it, but the pain is there.” Mustering a wistful smile, he draws an analogy. "You can take a fish from the ocean, and put it in a nice clean pool. And the quality of life is going to be much better. But I’m sure that fish is going to miss that ocean. I know I’m like a fish in the pool. I know I will live many years longer if I stay here. But I don’t know whether I can live away from that ocean.” But then again, can he return to it? “I have incorporated a lot of American values,” he answers simply. “I have to say I am not Iranian any more.”
Abdul hasn’t seen his home in nine years, so his statements about Iran spring from fairly distant memories. Such absences pose a danger for the foreign student, according to San Diego State’s foreign student counselor, Winnie Chase. She urges all of SDSU’s foreign scholars to go back at least every two years as a means of staying in touch with their culture. Yet return visits to one’s home can provide a jolt in itself, a jolt which Afsaneh Nowruzi, for one, already has tasted.
Afsaneh hails from Iran but she's only nineteen, a sophomore engineering student at San Diego State. She lived in a dorm her first year on campus, but now prefers the freedom of her El Cajon Boulevard apartment, where her two high-school-age sisters just joined her from Iran. Curly-haired and merry-eyed, Afsaneh looks classically Persian, but after twelve years of English study, she speaks the language like a native. Her strong jaw juts forward as she voices many criticisms of American culture: Americans tend to be emotionally distant, insular, and chauvinistic. Yet she admits “one problem with living here is when you go back, it’s really hard. Just being here one year has changed me so much. When you're here, you don't realize it . . . you say ‘Oh, I haven’t changed.’ But when you go back, it hits you all at once.”
Like many women from other cultures, Afsaneh seems most sensitive to the difference in women's roles between the United States and her home country. Persian girls live with their families until they are married: and since loss of virginity brings disgrace, social encounters tend to be closely chaperoned. "Here, it's a completely different world, and when you go back you see it all at once. Even though you’ve lived there all your life, when you’ve seen a different culture, you’re surprised. You’re in your home but you say, “How can people be like this?’ ”
Already, the change has affected her plans so that now she has begun to aim for a master's degree. A doctorate may be too far in the future, yet she can see far enough ahead to realize how much she will have changed after five or six years in this country. Going back permanently she admits with a shy smile, will be very hard. If Afsaneh or Abdul decide not to go, both say they won’t face problems with their native countries, since the families of both have shouldered the full cost of their educations neither owes educational service to the government. Other foreign students whose study is state-financed incur an obligation, however, and governments plagued by brain drains, such as those in India and Middle East, do have one way of increasing chance of seeing their newly educated citizens once again — namely, by asking the consulates in their countries to issue an “exchange" visa instead of the ordinary “student" variety. Such documents place stringent requirements upon the students' return home. For a period of two years even if he or she has married an American citizen while in the United States. But if a determined immigrant finds a way to get around the restriction, almost no home countries monitor the errant individuals enough to compel return. Instead, the biggest bar facing the student who wants to remain springs from the American government.
Consider the case of Pierre or Tedashi, or Mbuto, who decided he wants to contribute to his newly acquired engineering expertise to this country. Before becoming naturalized, he must live here for five years as a resident alien, but winning that status is not impossible. Of all the individuals from e country in the world vying to receive classification, only 290,000 each year are successful. Only a few exceptions, break rule, and most of the students who want to remain here turn to them in desperation.
The most common is marriage, according to Robert Mitton. deputy district director a San Diego INS office. Mitton has kept an eye on foreign students for more than twenty years, and he says marriage is “the standard thing you do to stay.” He says when the general public volunteers information to the immigration service, it overwhelmingly falls into two categories: cases where the foreigner has taken an American’s job. and “affairs of the heart.” Mitton thus hears from the disappointed brides back home and from the jilted American suitors. He says marriage rings, in which American young people charge fees for going through a wedding ceremony with an alien, are common, but so are cases in which the foreign student acts independently. ‘‘Many an American girl has found out the hard way about cultural differences in marriage obligations,” Mitton says. “For example, marriage in the United States to a non-Moslem is not viewed at home as a marriage. So. many Arab students feel no sense of commitment. Or if the girl returns home with them, she may find she only has the status of a concubine.”
Of course, not all the students who marry while in the United States harbor ulterior motives. UCSD’s foreign students dean, Joan Walsh, says flatly. "I don’t see any convenience marriages at this institution. Our people are just too smart for that. I’ve gone to many of the weddings and you can obviously tell that they’re young people who’ve genuinely fallen in love.”
Walsh more commonly spends her time working on a second immigration loophole: trying to prove that a student who has been offered a job is uniquely qualified to fill it. Walsh grumbles that she spends half her time working on such labor certifications, exhaustive checks to ascertain that no American could fill the job in question. The UCSD dean’s charges, many of whom sport graduate degrees in highly specialized scientific fields, not uncommonly meet this requirement. But at institutions like San Diego State, where most of the students pursue more general degrees, the uniqueness qualification can be much rarer, as Mitsu Chiu testifies with a trace of frustration.
Chiu is a Chinese citizen who was born and raised in Japan. He left the island country right after high school in an attempt to better his English; since then he’s picked up a degree in economics from a Kansas university and he's almost completed a master’s degree in sociology at San Diego State. While in the United States, he also married a Japanese woman and the two had a baby girl about fifteen months ago. About the same time, Mitsu started thinking about staying here permanently.
The son of a wealthy businessman, he explains that he could have followed in his older brother’s footsteps and returned to take over part of the family business. Yet the American business climate attracted him. "I knew if I went back, I would face a lot more competition. There are a lot of people on those islands, and everyone is competing fiercely,” he says. “Here I feel what you put into your business comes back to you. Also, with a relatively little amount of capital, you can do quite well.”
After deciding to stay, his first tack was to argue that he possessed a unique skill: tutoring Japanese. Twice a week, Mitsu teaches Japanese at the East San Diego Center, and last summer he sent out resumes and letters seeking a position to more than fifty universities, none of which responded positively. Immigration officials also warned him that the uniqueness of the skill itself would be questionable, so finally he turned to one of the only remaining loopholes open to would-be immigrants, investing money in the American economy (anyone who puts $40,000 or more into some business project has a greater chance of winning legal residency). For weeks, he searched down in the Gaslamp District for an old hotel which he could buy and renovate, but finally he settled upon an alternative purchase, a liquor store on a busy North Park corner. After consultation with three separate immigration lawyers, he says he feels assured, at long last, that he’ll be able to stay, although it will take probably a year and a half for his papers to come through.
Few students can afford the excessive investment costs, however, and many don’t qualify for any other loophole. Mitton. at the immigration service, says a lot of them doggedly go through the application process anyway, “but the bigger experience is that they simply disappear into the woodwork.” Unlike the Mexican native who first has to elude border patrol agents, the foreign student who decides to plunge into illegality is already here. Granted, he must get a job in order to make the transition to life outside the university, “but if you go to an area where they don’t have too many illegal aliens, they probably aren’t going to ask many questions,” one authority says.
Mitton argues that all illegal aliens, even highly educated ones, tend to be forced into the bottom jobs in American industry. He compares the alien's situation with that of the average American and says, “Anyone who has to keep part of his activities and background hidden away is not going to be in as strong a position. He certainly is not going to be as aggressive in getting his rights.” Furthermore, illegal status immerses the former foreign student into a life of constant insecurity. Even after years of illegal residency, discovery still can bring deportation in just seven to ten days. Figures don’t exist, but both the counselors and the immigration officers say some do indeed get caught: a traffic accident, for example, can reveal the lack of proper papers, or the need to travel can force the illegal foreigner into a corner.
But while the danger exists, the odds against it still are good, and Mitton is the first to admit it. “We estimate a total of between four and twenty million illegal aliens are in the country, and yet we have an investigative force of only 1,700 officers nationwide,” he says with a sigh. “We've got only the same number of officers as the police force in Kansas City!” Immigration officers regularly survey industry, but they don’t go searching for the lone professional. Mitton says Los Angeles officers won’t even visit a business unless they expect to net at least fifty illegal aliens, and San Diego officers also look for high yields. “Let’s face it, the immigration people aren’t looking for the Ph D. in literature,” one foreign student advisor concurs. “They’re looking for the typical illegal alien.”
Joan Walsh has counseled foreign students for ten years, but she doesn’t have any solutions to their dilemma. She hastens to point out that students from many countries do go home without hesitation. African students, often quite nationalistic, are consistently good about returning, she says. So are most Japanese students and many Western Europeans. But among the countries which have difficulty luring back their educated offspring, common elements recur: too few jobs for highly qualified people, low standards of living, oppressive political conditions — all situations over which the American educational institutions have no control.
The schools do control certain obvious elements, and the counselors uniformly talk about improving them: making students select their education more carefully, avoiding, for example, training in a career which doesn't exist back at home. Speaking bluntly, Walsh also suggests another improvement. “I’m against undergraduates,” she says. "I don’t think they should be encouraged overseas to come here. They come in when they’re just eighteen years old, right before one of the most formative periods in their lives. By the time the undergraduate goes through two or probably three degrees, he’s not going to go home.” She says UCSD doesn’t encourage undergrads, but about a quarter of all its foreign students fall in that category, lured to San Diego largely through word of mouth. Walsh admits the university isn't about to slam its doors against such students, particularly since they invariably must pay the highest tuitions. (At State and UCSD, for example, the foreign students must pay out-of-state tuition for all four years, compared to American students from other states who qualify as California residents after one year here.)
‘‘There’s good income in out-of-state tuition,” Walsh says harshly. “I don’t think any university would come out with an official position about getting the foreign students back home, because the universities see their only-obligation as guiding scholars through their degree programs . . . then there’s some concern with placing graduates in good jobs; but after that, I think the whole question of whether these graduates are ever going back to India never graces their minds .... In their guts, most institutions aren’t taking that stand.”
And if they don’t, and the immigration service continues with its skeletal force, nothing will ever change, according to Mitton, the immigration administrator. Only one thing could bring that about, he says with an air of resignation. Americans will have to develop a new attitude, he says, an attitude of willingness to pay for someone to chase the students home. “As it is, I don’t think the American people want us to be too tough on the students hidden away in the woodwork.”