Vietnamese student at Harvard fights for international learner justice

By Phan Duong   July 20, 2020 | 10:00 pm PT
With the Trump administration wanting to bar foreign students from staying if their universities switch to online-only courses, Hien Anh has stepped up to fight for her friends.

On July 6, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced the new regulation, subjecting international students to deportation if they did not attend classes on campus as universities grappled with the question of whether or not to reopen during the pandemic. The new visa rule dumped over 1.1 million international students in the U.S. into quagmire.

Ton Hien Anh, student at Harvard University, did not worry too much since she had registered for a repatriation flight back to Vietnam in August. But witnessing her friends stretch themselves thin as travel restrictions stop many from going home, Anh knew she "must do something."

Right after learning about the new ICE visa rule, she stayed up all night to research its effects on international students. After, she wrote to the university, asking it to safeguard student rights.

Hien Anh at Harvard University. Photo courtesy of La Thanh Ha.

Ton Hien Anh at Harvard University. Photo by La Thanh Ha.

On behalf of international students stranded in America, she sent her letter to the university's Board of Overseers. In the meantime, she talked with organizations and individuals, encouraging them to use the letter she prepared to show their support.

On the morning of July 7, the university held an urgent meeting. The dean responded to Anh's email, telling her Harvard would officially sue ICE.

Different from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), one of the first institutions suing ICE, Harvard University will go 100 percent online in fall. While ICE gave universities 10 days to change their plan for the upcoming semester, no one knew how long the lawsuit would last before the judge's final decision.

Anh, one more time, worked against the clock to suggest the university organize on-campus courses so international students could join and maintain their visa status.

The Vietnamese student studied how other universities were reacting to the new visa rules, policies of 15 institutions holding on-campus courses, and over 30 student movements calling universities to mitigate the rule's negative effects.

"I was researching and receiving feedback from friends, alumnus, and professors who cared about this matter to complete the letter and call for more support," Anh said.

In her open petition, she summarizes the consequences international students at Harvard would have to face if ICE won the lawsuit. Accordingly, they could be deported or have their visas revoked if they overstayed in America. Many countries have closed their borders amid the pandemic, placing many students into a dilemma. Besides, traveling across country also poses Covid-19 infection risks.

Anh poposed several feasible solutions for Harvard, affordable and easy to carry out without violating social distancing rules, such as organizing on-campus courses. She mentioned several universities in the Ivy League that will run on-campus activities in fall, such as Princeton and Yale. Other institutions like Colombia University and UC Berkeley added on-campus courses to their programs right after ICE released the new visa rules.

At the end of her open letter, she quoted university president Lawrence Bacow stating: "We will not stand by to see our international students' dreams extinguished by a deeply misguided order. We owe it to them to stand up and to fight, and, we will."

In the first 20 hours, the petition attracted over 1,000 signatures from Harvard professors, universities, and alumni, including more than 50 presidents and management board members of organizations within the university.

Dean Rakesh Khurana of Harvard College said he had submitted Anh's letter to the Board of Overseers to consider plans for the fall semester, thanking the Vietnamese student for raising her voice.

On July 8, Harvard and MIT officially sued the administration, attracting dozens of universities, state authorities, and tech companies to join the fight by opposing the new visa rules, which were rescinded on July 15 after a federal court hearing.

Right after, David C. Lamberth, professor of Philosophy and Theology at Harvard, sent an email to Anh, telling her he was delighted about the government's new decision.

"The wide range of voices from all across the country, from students, faculty, universities and industry all came together in less than a week, and the kind of self-advocacy you did contribute in no small part," he told her.

The fight was not full of roses. Anh faced several challenges while calling for support. Many did not understand the law or the reasons why they should care about international students. Some, including professors, even told her to keep quiet.

Hien Anh (second from left) and her family at her sisters graduation. Photo courtesy of La Thanh Ha.

To Hien Anh (second from left) and her family at her sister's graduation in the U.S. Photo by La Thanh Ha.

Her mother was like a cat on hot bricks after learning her little daughter was standing up to the American school.

"She is just an international student, how can she talk with university leaders. I was worried she would be deported," said La Thanh Ha, Anh's mother.

But the Vietnamese student is a real fighter.

"I want to bring voices from the Harvard community to university leaders. I want to help them have a comprehensive understanding of what would happen if international students are sent home amid the pandemic," she told her mother, who later gave her 100 percent support.

Anh is not the first in her family to go to Harvard on a full scholarship. Her elder sister, Ton Ha Anh, also attended the 384-year-old university and now works as a senior business analyst at American management consulting firm McKinsey in New York.

While Ha Anh is more sociable, Hien Anh is more introverted and has a passion for social activities to demand justice for the underprivileged. She is a member of the management board of a school organization which has been raising money for over 100 eye operations for poor children and supplying food and shelter to the homeless.

Last semester, Hien Anh was one of the top students in her class. Bonnie Talbert, a lecturer in Social Studies, impressed after reading her final paper about racism in America and the Black Lives Matter movement, sent the paper to Dean Rakesh Khurana.

Now, nearly everyone knows about the Vietnamese student who raised her voice to protect international students at Harvard.

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