The international students working group (ISWG) is an open working group under Columbia University’s student-workers union, the Graduate Workers of Columbia (GWC-UAW 2110). We fight for the rights of all international students and scholars at Columbia University. The ISWG has been one of the most active and successful sub-committees of the GWC since its inception in 2014.
What We Do
Union protections are good for all student workers, for example by providing us with job security and real recourse for grievances for harassment. However, workers with student visas face some unique challenges. Our goals as the ISWG is to hold Columbia accountable to its stated mission “to attract a diverse and international faculty and student body [and] to support research and teaching on global issues.”
Currently, we support international students by:
- Sharing information that affects international students, particularly related to their immigration status and immigration policies (as well as helping students navigate healthcare, taxes, and housing in the US), as well as collating this information into an easily accessible form (such as this link repository).
- Researching and representing the interests of international students in the bargaining process and other exchanges between GWC and Columbia administration.
- Organizing campaigns to directly pressure the university to support international students outside of contract provisions, for example in relation to ISSO services.
- Building community so that international students can support each other in what can be a difficult and at times alienating experience of study and work as a visa holder.
- Coordinating with other international and immigrant student and worker groups across the USA, including through a nationwide cross-campus alliance of international and immigrant student groups in graduate student unions called IISWA (facebook.com/iiswalliance).
Our short and long-term goals include:
- Establishing a sanctuary campus, so that immigration officials are not permitted to enter or access data from the university without a court order; and so that staff are trained in how to interact with immigration officials.
- Ensuring that international, immigrant, and/or undocumented student workers have equal opportunities for employment and scholarships; and that their income and aid is protected by sudden changes in their individual immigration status and federal policies.
- Free legal assistance for international students/workers facing immigration difficulties, especially those who are affected by policies outside their own control.
- A more responsive, transparent, and communicative International Students and Scholars Office, that offers regular town halls for international students to air their concerns, weekly call-in or drop-in hours as is common in peer institutions, workshops on in-demand topics, and prompt guidance on changing federal policies.
- A hardship fund that is accessible to international students for emergencies, similar to the Special Healthcare Needs Fund; such funds were common practice in international student offices until recently.
- Reimbursement or cancellation of discriminatory fees that only international students must pay, such as the SEVIS fee and the International Service fee.
- Litigation and lobbying, both by our parent union and by the university, against discriminatory and xenophobic legislation, and for more favorable policies on DACA, OPT, employment visas, and other issues as described in UAW’s position on immigration.
- A university-wide contingency plan in the case of future emergencies such as changes in immigration policy, for international students and scholars, developed in conjunction with and the consultation of a university-wide student committee, including our student workers union.
- Responsiveness to international student issues in university decision-making, through, for example, the expansion of the Provost’s International Issues Working Group must be expanded to include, at the very least, the International Students Working Group of the GWC.
- Fighting against racism, both individual and systemic, to create a campus where all international students and scholars are truly welcome.
In the last few years, we have achieved several wins. These are just some of the actions and achievements we can be proud of:
- During the pandemic, we have pushed the university to acknowledge the issues we face through an email and phone campaign; we have forced ISSO to hold two town halls that it was reluctant to hold and to verbally commit to instituting call-in hours for the first time.
- We have continued to hold Q&As with professionals and also among peers related to immigration law, taxes, healthcare, and housing, including emergency town halls workshops in relation to changing ICE-SEVP guidelines and against COVID-related racism.
- We have led and supported the issuing of statements condemning xenophobic policies and COVID-related racism.
- When Columbia issues incorrect tax forms to international students, leading to international students losing thousands of dollars in income, we campaigned for and achieved the return of misfiled tax monies.
- The ISWG supported the right of international students to a fair workplace, as when it stood behind Longxi Zhao, a Chemical Engineering PhD Student, who was fired as a TA without any due process and was left with no choice but to return home.
- In the first year of its existence, ISWG secured increased summer funding and summer research and language training scholarships for international students in the humanities and social sciences.