A new student-directed documentary explores the difficulties international students face in attempting to work in the United States after they graduate. Students interviewed for the film describe frustrations in finding employers willing to sponsor their visa applications, long delays in visa processing times, and a general lack of freedom: an inability to quit their jobs – or start their own businesses – without losing the legal right to remain in the U.S.
“My heart belongs in the U.S. I feel like I’m an American,” one international student says in the film. “But at the same time I feel like America’s a bad parent.
“America adopts all these immigrants every year like they’re children, but [it doesn’t] parent them well. [It doesn’t] give them the resources they need to be successful, and the only resource that this American parent really needs to give its immigrants is an ability to be able to get citizenship quicker and to have independence to find jobs – the right jobs – and to start businesses.”
The 27-minute film, "Will Work for Words," premiered earlier this month at the Virginia Film Festival in Charlottesville. The filmmaker, Ayşehan Jülide Etem, is an international student from Turkey: she completed her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Virginia and is pursuing her Ph.D. in Italian Studies at Indiana University at Bloomington. She completed edits on the film during late nights at Indiana’s library this fall.
“As soon as I finished my schoolwork, I ran to the library and I started working on the film,” she says. “I have been in the library until 4 a.m., 5 a.m. But I really care about this issue. It’s a huge passion for me."
“There are so many international students and sometimes I feel like we don’t get appreciated in this country."
Higher education and business leaders have long lobbied for expanding opportunities for international students who wish to work in the U.S. after graduation. Other Western nations that compete with the U.S. to attract top graduate students have visa rules that make it easier for new Ph.D.s to stay, and many view America's stricter rules as placing the nation's universities at a competitive disadvantage.
A report  released in June by the Partnership for a New American Economy – a coalition of business and municipal leaders focused on immigration reform – called for granting green cards to foreign students who have earned graduate degrees in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields, creating a new visa category for foreign entrepreneurs (a so-called “startup visa”) and raising or removing caps on the number of temporary, high-skilled H-1B visas awarded (currently set at 65,000 per year). An accompanying letter,  signed by 166 American university presidents, notes that foreign students make up 45 percent of all graduate students in engineering, math, computer science and physical science -- and 52 percent of all Ph.D. recipients in these fields. “But after we have trained and educated these future job creators, our antiquated immigration laws turn them away to work for our competitors in other countries,” the letter states. “Low limits on visas leave immigrants with no way to stay or facing untenable delays for a permanent visa."
Etem, whose previous film, "Trolley," explored town-gown relations in Charlottesville, made "Will Work for Words" with friends who volunteered their help and with a budget of zero dollars. She made the choice to focus her camera on the mouths of her interviewees, rendering her sources essentially anonymous. In addition to international students and recent graduates, the film also features an immigration lawyer and an international education administrator (Parke Muth, the former director of international admission at Virginia). A Lady Liberty figure lurks throughout the film, the myth juxtaposed with the reality, Etem says.
“In this film, I really wanted to show the idea of hope,” she says. “I think everyone who watches this film can relate, simply because everyone in the film is talking about a dream. Everyone has a dream.”