Just before going to work on a sunny Friday morning in March, Khan Pham, a 24-year-old native of Vietnam looked outside her living room window onto the street below.
“I love my neighborhood,” said Pham about her Hamilton Heights home at 141st street, a classic New York City pre-war building nestled in this bustling neighborhood. “Diversity is what makes this part of the city so vibrant. The rent is affordable and the food is amazing. It’s still a predominately Hispanic and African American neighborhood. I can’t imagine the negative impact a vast reduction in visas would have on this area of the city.”
In the aftermath of the various executive orders restricting immigration and statements from President Donald Trump denigrating visa programs such as the H-1B visa used by foreign workers, young international students like Pham, are rethinking their place in American.
Pham first moved to the city seven years ago to study and received a bachelor’s degree in Political Science and master’s in Public Policy from Baruch College. She currently works for the NGO, Amani Global Works, as a program and development intern. When Pham first moved to the U.S her plan was to find a way to work in the country, but now she is not that sure.
“Being international, I suddenly feel somehow less welcomed here,” said Khan. “I am honestly not sure I want to stay here and my partner and I are thinking about moving to another country together if things worsen under Trump’s presidency.”
Other young adults from abroad echoed Pham’s sentiments. Betty Lo, a 22-year-old recent college graduate from Taiwan is currently applying for the H-1B visa, an employment based visa for temporary workers. She is unsure of how Trump presidency will affect her status.
“Trump and his cabinet are in the process of reforming work visas,” said Lo. “It has me worried because I am in the process of applying for a work visa. So I’m pretty certain things will get even more complicated than it already is.”
There are 85,000 visas given each year and currently 900,000 visa holders in the United States. Where Trump stands on the H-1B is difficult to determine. Back in October 2015, Trump said he was in favor of people coming into this country legally, but in March 2016, his campaign released a statement saying that the H-1B program was “neither high-skilled nor immigration: these are temporary foreign workers…for the explicit purpose of substituting for American workers at lower pay. I remain totally committed to eliminating rampant, widespread H-1B abuse I will end forever the use of the H-1B as a cheap labor program, and institute an absolute requirement to hire American workers for every visa and immigration program. No exceptions.”
The H-1B is one of the most common visa programs for foreign workers in the United States.
Nadeem Omar Shad a 23-year-old student at Columbia University, originally from the U.K. is discouraged.
“Once I get my degree, I will go back to the UK,” Shad said. “Trump has had a chilling effect on students’ from the UK in the sense that people feel discouraged to stay here and pursue an OPT, because they think employers will be less likely to hire them. But a lot of students say that after studying here for five, six years, they fee lbetter here than in their country of origin so it’s not a great situation to be in for a lot of us.”
According to the nonprofit Institute of International Education, about 1,043,839, international students were enrolled in U.S. universities in the 2015-2016 school year. The same year, 147,498 were doing Optional Practical Training (OPT), a visa that permits international student to stay and work in the country momentarily.
International students account for about 5 percent of all U.S. college students, and, as a group, contributed nearly $32.8 billion to the U.S. economy in 2015-2016, according to NAFSA.
“International students pay tuition, room and board to the university and sometimes rent local apartments/houses in the community,” said Jason Wynn the Assistant Director of International Student and Scholar Services at Georgia College and State University who has throughout the years helped and facilitated international students’ immigration and cultural acclimation needs. “This revenue is money that the local economy otherwise wouldn’t have.”
What worries students like Pham is the uncertainty behind Trump’s language.
“Trump specifically stated that changes are coming for H-1B visa,” said Pham. “Knowing his sentiments about foreigners, I don’t think he will make it easier for us to stay and work in the country. Most people don’t realize that international students not only stay because they have job opportunities here but also they create a new life in the country. They form relationships, grow to love certain places, learn the culture.”
Parents, students and teachers gathered outside Sen. Chuck Schumer’s office, and voiced their concerns about Betsy DeVos’ pending appointment to Secretary of Education. Public Education Watchdogs organized the demonstration and pressed Sen. Schumer to block DeVos’ confirmation during this week’s Senate vote.
Since the demonstration, a Senate panel met on Tuesday afternoon and voted 12-11 in favor of DeVos. This will advance her confirmation to a full Senate vote for final approval. Democrats remain hopeful they can acquire the three Republican votes needed to block her appointment. Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) have both expressed their own reservations with DeVos’ appointment, but neither have confirmed the direction of their vote.
In the basement of Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village, women gathered recently to participate in the Muslim Community Network’s self defense class. Lately, it has been busier than usual.
“I believe that we got so many people interested and all of these RSVP’s because people were panicked after the election,” said Emaan Moosani, Program Director at the Muslim Community Network.
There has been an increase in hate crimes toward the Muslim community. The day after the presidential election, various attacks and hate oriented crimes were reported around the country.
“The need is really strong for us women to be able to defend ourselves, in light of all the Islamophobia and negative stuff that has been happening for the past almost two years,” said training participant, Ayesha Mohammed.
In a recent study, The Southern Poverty Center found that the number of groups on the American radical right has expanded from 784 in 2014 to 892 in 2015 — a 14% increase. This hostile climate has translated to an increase in attacks on vulnerable populations. The FBI hate crimes statistics show that assault, attacks on mosques and other hate crimes against Muslims surged by 67% since 2014. This increase is the biggest since 2001 when more than 480 attacks occurred in the aftermath of the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center.
During the training, Magda Kamel, a teaching assistant, shared an experience she had following the elections.
“In the morning, on my way to the mosque somebody came and whispered bad words, f- words, and many things. At first, I ignored him, and he came closer… I was so scared of physical touch, but he came closer to curse me more,” Kamel recalled.
The fear in her community is overwhelming.
Mariana Aguilera served as a facilitator at the event. She emphasized that the training space was designed to help women cope not only with immediate danger but also with a state of being when facing a constant threat.
“ Self-defense is not just learning how to address something physically, but also how to address something mentally,” said Aguilera. “Self-defense has two parts, and those skills that you learn from there will give you the solution when you are confronting somebody verbally, physically, or what you are going to do when you are dealing with the situation itself.”
Participants stayed after the event to exchange contact information and provide words of support to the women that shared their experience during the training.
“I feel a whole lot more confident than when I walked in the room,” said Magda Kamel.
Jose Marti Park in Union City was created in 2008 as a tribute for the Cuban community in the area. Photo by Sophie Herbut
The Jose Marti Park in Union City, is a small, gated park named after the famous Cuban poet. It was once nicely decorated with a tile Cuban flag behind a bust of Jose Marti and lined portraits of famous Cubans. Now the tiles have been taken down and the small display has been weathered and barely recognizable.
But it is still a gathering place for the older local Cuban men. A place to smoke cigars, play dominos, talk about family, memories and Cuba.
These men came to America with nothing except an idea. They left their families, friends and the few things they owned for freedom. They came for a chance to work, earn and build a better life.
“Personally, my country is here,” Fernando Andreu said in Spanish recently at the park. “I have my children and grandchildren here. Cuba is lost now.”
Fidel Castro’s death in November shocked the Cubans of Union City. It was a day that brought, reflection and pain.
Many Cubans immigrated to Union City to seek political and economic freedom after Fidel Castro gained power. North Jersey and New York have the second highest Cuban population in the United States. Their influence gave Union City the nickname “Havana on the Hudson.”
Now after Castro’s death, many older Cuban-Americans are not expecting any liberation to come to the island.
“With the communism, there are different people who live there,” Andreu,66, said. “They don’t think the same as we do. [Cuba] is not the same.”
Born in the capital of Cuba, Havana, Andreu and his family left when he was eight years old in the 1960s, as Castro was gaining control of the government. Because his dad was taken as a political prisoner for working in the previous government, Andreu left Cuba with only his mom and his sister.
“When we came, we were political refugees,” said Andreu. “[Now] Cubans step foot here and automatically have [citizenship]. Many people from Latin America would love to have the same thing.”
Andreu and his family came with nothing and lived in poverty. They collected welfare until his mom was able to get a job at a factory to support the family. He learned what it meant to work and earn his own keep. After spending most of his life in the U.S., he’s disillusioned at the thought of a free Cuba.
Miguel Alonso, 60, doesn’t believe Castro’s death meant anything for Cuba’s freedom. He said the hold of communism on the country is far greater than the one man.
“Fidel died to me 10 years ago,” Alonso said in Spanish. “They are just announcing it now.”
Alonso grew up in Havana, under Castro’s government. He left when he was 24, by himself.
“I was young, I came on a boat with the desire to come to the United States for liberty,” Alonso said. “What all Cubans want.”
Alonso escaped through the port of Mariel on April 27, 1980. The port was opened temporarily and a large number of rafts and boats full of people entered the U.S. He said it was the quickest and easiest way to escape.
“I knew people in the United States,” said Alonso. “I knew here you had to work.”
Alonso immediately got to work in construction because that’s what he worked as in Cuba. He had the skills and the opportunity. He said while he grew up around communism, he still believed in democracy.
“No one agrees with communism,” he said. “Communism demands people to be communist. It didn’t work in Europe; it definitely would not work [in Cuba].”
Alonso also said that with Trump as president, he’s unsure where the future of Cuban-Americans are headed.
Francisco Guzman, 63, lit a cigar as he stood against the green fence of the park.
Guzman grew up in Havana and he came to the U.S. when he was 26, after he sought asylum in the Peruvian embassy.
“One Saturday when they said that people could enter, I just went,” said Guzman in Spanish. “I spent 13 days in the embassy.”
Guzman immediately started working when he arrived to the U.S., working in a factory at first in Philadelphia. When he moved to Union City, he started working in agriculture. Guzman’s parents and his brother escaped Cuba, but his sister is still there. He said she will never leave so he helps her with as much as he can.
“I send her clothes and I give her money so she can buy what she needs,” Guzman said.
He said many Cubans who used to live in Union City have moved out to look for jobs and start their families. The ones who’ve stayed have been there for most of their lives.
“The Capitalist goes wherever there’s a job,” said Rijo Alvarez, 50.
Alvarez sat on one of the tables of the park with a cigar poised in his hand. He spoke casually about his life as though it was as common as an afternoon walk. He listed all the jobs he had from construction to electrical work.
“I’ve done things here I wouldn’t have ever been about to do in my country,” said Alvarez in Spanish. “My [Cuban] brothers would have stepped on my head.”
Alvarez moved from Cuba to New Jersey when he was 14. His father was a political prisoner, but was able to take his entire family and leave the island. He was one of the lucky ones. Alvarez’s parents started working immediately when they arrived and Alvarez was enrolled in school.
“I follow a philosophy, not a person,” said Alvarez. “The philosophy to be free. I want to be free and do with my money what I think I should do with it. I wanted to think what I wanted and read what I wanted.”
Alvarez said Castro’s death didn’t faze him. He was American. For him, Castro has been dead for years. But he said that both the U.S. and Cuba would have to change.
“Things have to change [in the U.S.],” said Alvarez. “Cubans aren’t the only ones who deserve the treatment they’re getting. All the Latin American brothers also deserve it. We should all be equal”
Every year, on the second Friday in December, high school seniors from across the country march their application materials through their communities to a local post office or mail truck. The College March began in 2011 at NYC Outward Bound’s network school, the Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School (WHEELS). In one year, participation spread throughout the network and continues to grow annually. It is a day that allows students to enthusiastically approach the college application process, rather than feel intimidated.
This year, over 2,700 seniors will march at 35 schools across 12 cities.
The Dakota Access Pipeline project has been a strongly opposed development for the past 18 months. It would create a new underground oil pipeline designed to carry roughly 470,000 barrels of oil across 1,172 miles of land per day. The pipeline would pass through four Midwest states – North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, and Illinois – connecting Bakken and Three Forks oil production areas in North Dakota to Patoka, Illinois.
The most active opposition has come from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. Sections of the pipeline would cut directly through sacred holy ground and potentially damage their water supply, so protestors have been drawn to the land to stop construction. Many camping at Standing Rock have faced attack dogs, pepper spray, and even fires being set to camp grounds.
Social media users across the nation took to action with the hashtag, #NoDAPL. Towards the end of last month, demonstrators in North Dakota requested Facebook users to check-in at Standing Rock. This was done in an effort to create a cyber smokescreen, and prevent local law enforcement from using the social media platform to target protestors. This past week, New York joined the fight.