Hard times await Kenyan students in USA

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BY ANTONY KARANJA in DALLAS, TEXAS

The hunt for a US study visa has taken some Kenyan families through ordeals they never thought they would find themselves in.

Parents have sold pieces of land; others have sold their entire livestock to see their kids go through the first semester in a US college. After all they believe once in the US, they will earn enough to maintain themselves the rest of the way. The joy of obtaining that treasured document can be like no other and the journey from the US embassy to our homes is filled with a sense of an accomplishment of a lifetime.

Some visualise the planes at the airport, the skyscrapers in major US cities and a life of ultimate comfort even before the day of departure comes. For those who fail to obtain this “key” to the land of milk and honey, the disappointment can linger for days with a taste of shattered dreams.

Some can only imagine how their friends are faring in the US. They imagine of their friends leaving school, hopping into flashy cars, heading to their big homes throwing lavish parties over the weekends and keeping tabs of all the cool trends that originate from Obamaland. Seeing their friends’ Facebook pictures as they tour various US cities and attend major Kenyan bashes graced by Kenyan celebrities on tour over the summer holidays, they can only imagine how their friends who are students in the United States are having it good.

Or are they? Life in the US for a Kenyan on a student visa can be daunting. For all the success stories that some Kenyan students can share in the US, there are thousands of told as well as untold stories highlighting heavy pressure and suffering as they try to make ends meet. For bills, bills, bills is no longer just a line in the Destiny’s Child group hit song, but it has become their way of life. To maintain a comfortable life in the US, so much has to be sacrificed and so many pleasures have to be cast aside.

On average, an international undergraduate student coughs somewhere between $8,000 (Sh624,000) and $10,000 (Sh780,000) per school year. These figures do not include the cost of their meals and books. A fellow Kenyan student who is a permanent resident (on a green card) pays between $5,000 (Sh390,000) and $7,000 (Sh546,000) over the same school year.

With an international student being allowed legal employment in the US of up to 20 hours a week at around $7 (Sh546) an hour, the seemingly tight immigration rules have not made things any better and it has often been a tough road as students try to raise school fees. It’s is not easy anymore for these students to seek alternative employment to supplement their already meager income. The immigration enforcement at US businesses has become widespread as the federal government threatens employers with fines as well as denying them contracts with federal agencies if they do not comply with workplace immigration enforcement.

In fact, immigration raids have increased in frequency since President Obama took office as the US president increases emphasis on enforcement ahead of the immigration reform debate. This has become necessary as Obama will most definitely need these statistics as he faces Republican opposition during the reform debate who may want to suggest that he will be soft on tackling illegal immigration.

According to Department of Homeland Security reports, there have been 387,000 deportations of undocumented immigrants in the first year of the Obama presidency which is more than was the case in President George W. Bush’s last year in office. Sleep has become a luxury some cannot afford to have. When all is said and done, some students have less than four hours of sleep in between their jobs and their school work.

Fridays in the US are nothing close to the ones we knew in Kenya. In Kenya you viewed this day as a culmination of a hectic week. It’s however a different story in the US. Some of us cannot tell you the difference between a Sunday and a Wednesday as both these days are working days. While back in Kenya we may have been used to the usual eight-hour work days, 40-hour week schedule, it is very common to find many Kenyans amassing 16 hours at work a day and well over 90 hours a week as they switch back and forth between various jobs that they hold.

Most students arriving in the country quickly find out that the cost of living can be choking. The average cost of a one bedroom apartment in the Dallas, Texas area ranges between $500 (Sh39,000) and $650 (Sh50,700) while a two bedroom apartment can be as high as $800 (Sh62,000). Monthly expenses other than rent can easily exceed $500 (Sh39,000). This can be overwhelming unless one is able to find a roommate. Days of fun are in even shorter supply. It is not unusual for students to attend school during the day and go to work at night and still be expected to do their homework and catch some sleep. This may not be easy for some and without an understanding boss who might work around your schedule; many have broken down and driven to a point of utter despair.

The much awaited immigration reforms might not offer any reprieve for these students. The reforms are meant to affect those who are in the country illegally and who are undocumented immigrants. Students are legally in the country unless they miss a semester in college without permission which renders them to fall out of status. Falling out of status this way will not help their cases as they might need to have been “illegally in the US” for more than five years if recommendations in the previously failed immigration debate stand.

With this in mind, unless a student and those who have graduated transition to a permanent resident or other forms of legal residency, things are only going to get worse in the US. Earlier last year, Democratic Party Senator Charles Schummer of New York outlined plans to use eye scans or fingerprints to verify all workers in the US as congress eyes the overhaul of immigration laws. Days of overstaying a student visa and inventing ways of survival may be numbered if these recommendations are inserted in the Immigration reform bill. This does not only apply to students but to all who might fall out of legal status.

In the near future, studying in the US may become a reserve for the rich whose parents can foot their entire four years in college.

(Antony Karanja submitted this blog through our online forum. Post yours here. Get in touch with the contributor. [email protected])

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