By Rokhaya Sidikou, Contributor, Wednesday September 2, 2020
Toronto Star contributor Rokhaya Sidikou
In 2007, after more than five years of studying and working in the United States, I decided to leave the country for good. Growing up in Senegal, I’d long believed in the American Dream. And in some ways, America was my land of opportunity. I received a top-notch education at Boston’s Suffolk University and cut my teeth at a fast-paced communications company. I also met my husband. But despite all that America had invested in me, I eventually took my talent and skills to Canada.
Today, I’m urging other young immigrants to do the same. You should ask yourself: are the obstacles presented by American immigration policy and the xenophobia within the American government worth the struggle? ICE recently threatened to kick international students out of the country if their coursework moved online this fall. and While the Trump administration backed down on that policy, it was a needlessly cruel move to begin with, especially amidst a global pandemic. These students, like all immigrants in America, deserve basic respect if not recognition for their contributions.
Many are already weighing this decision. For three years running, fewer international students are studying in the U.S. “Not Coming to America: Falling Behind in the Race to Attract International Students,” a new report from New American Economy, finds that between 2015 and 2017, the number of international students enrolled fell by 9.6 per cent. That’s bad news for America; international students contributed $39 billion to the U.S. economy during the 2017-2018 academic year, creating or supporting 455,622 jobs, according to the report.
In 2001, when I arrived in the U.S., I was determined to do everything right: I’d follow every rule and study twice as hard as the other students to prepare myself for the job market. I wanted to work in a growing industry that needed more workers, like accounting or finance, and I hoped for eventual citizenship in the U.S.
Through a training program for international graduates, I was able to work in the U.S. for a limited time as the staff accountant at a small D.C. hotel, but when it ended, employers hesitated when I told them my immigration status. Instead, I went back to school for a master’s in financial management and was hired as a financial analyst at a communications company. I was in charge of deciding which projects were profitable, which helped the company grow considerably.
This company sponsored me for a temporary H-1B visa, but it required me to stay in the same position and at the same company, so my flexibility was limited. I began to see my path to citizenship as long and murky. When I met my husband, a Canadian citizen, we wanted to stay in the U.S., especially to be close to my sister who works for the United Nations in New York, but because of my status, we couldn’t apply for a marriage visa for him. I began to consider abandoning my life in America and heading to Canada instead. I did everything I was supposed to do to be successful — good grades, hard work, an esteemed internship — but it wasn’t enough to succeed in the U.S.
Once I looked into Canadian immigration policies, it didn’t take much convincing. Canada does an excellent job recruiting high-skilled workers, offering them an “express entry” program. Plus, international students receive extra points toward permanent residency if they study in Canada. Today, I work for the Toronto government, and five years after moving here, I became a Canadian citizen. If I’d stayed in the U.S., I’d likely still be living in limbo on a temporary visa.
I once believed that academic achievement and hard work was enough to build a good life in America. But that wasn’t the case. The immigration system was a huge barrier to my career. If I could do it all over again, I would have started in Canada. I encourage other international students to do the same.
I have two nephews in Senegal who recently decided to study in Canada instead of the U.S., and with the current policy changes, I’m so grateful they did. That’s two additional smart, talented individuals America has lost — and who knows how many more.
Rokhaya Sidikou is a property assessor for the Municipal Property Assessment Corp. in Toronto.
With thanks to the Toronto Star.
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