Schools saw Covid outbreaks. We got this onto ourselves

I remember six months ago, on a Friday when I was in the office, my colleagues and I were alarmed by the news that Covid-19 appeared in Omaha. We got the first confirmed case on that day. I went straight from my office to my car and drove to buy supplies that I still keep to this day. After that, we followed the news to get updated every hour on the number of cases in the US and Omaha, where we live. Every new case was a big deal. Fast forward to now, 6 months later, we have more than 170,000 deaths in the US and the number of cases is not in the hundreds or the thousands. It’s in the millions. I no longer care what the number of cases is on a daily basis. My friends don’t and judging from what I have seen on the streets of Omaha, Nebraska, many don’t either. We are already used to living with the virus at this moment. Not because we beat it. No, the number of cases in the US is still high. The last day when we had fewer than 35,000 new cases a day was almost 2 months ago! And look at the upward trend from left to right. You would love it if that were your stock portfolio’s return, but this is a deadly pandemic we are talking about!

Source: Google

Things don’t seem much better in Nebraska. We are on the same level as we were in May, in terms of new cases a day. It has been three months and it’s pretty difficult to argue that we made progress.

Source: Google

Vietnam’s handling of the crisis has been objectively successful. It was perfect up till 31st July. After going 99 days without a community transmission, an outbreak appeared in the 3rd biggest city in Vietnam. Since then, we have had 300-400 more cases and 25 deaths so far. The same story applies to New Zealand. The country also had a 102-day streak of no transmission before a new outbreak appeared out of nowhere.

That goes to show how vulnerable and fragile our societies are against this virus without a vaccine. If we don’t take, I’ll say it, draconian measures before a vaccine arrives, we won’t win this battle. Vietnam put towns with infections into lockdown. No one can be in or out. Borders have been closed to international guests for 6 months and I expect it to continue to the end of the year. Authorities go on the streets to fine folks who don’t wear a mask. Even all of those measures cannot stop the virus.

Look at what we are doing here in the US. Anti-mask is still going on in the country. If a government institutes a lockdown like we do in Vietnam, I fear there would be a civil war. Worse, some states are pushing for schools to reopen. To no one’s surprise, it didn’t take long for the consequences to arrive. Omaha reported, as of Tuesday (8/18/2020) night, there were 17 students and 18 staff tested positive while more than 150 others were in quarantine (Source: Omaha.com). In Mississippi, 71 out of 82 counties reported outbreaks at school with more than 430 confirmed cases and 2,500 in quarantine (Source: Tara Haelle).

Given what happened in Vietnam & New Zealand and what is happening in the US, do you think we are going to contain this pandemic without a virus? I don’t. The consequences of our failure are real. One of my teammates has three kids, two of which are 5-year-old twins. He desperately wants to send them to school, because working remotely and taking care of three kids at home with their class schedule is taxing for him. However, at the same time, sending them to school means that he is putting their health at risk. And I don’t think his situation is unique. It’s common among Americans.

While some businesses boomed lately because of the pandemic, many others struggled. Even a corporation like Kohl’s struggled financially, let alone small businesses. The government can throw money at the problem a couple of times, but it can’t be the solution forever. Somewhere it has to stop. Additionally, many people lose jobs and have likelihood in jeopardy. The stimulus check is still stuck somewhere in the Senate.

Airlines have secured a lot of cash to improve their liquidity, but at some point, they will have to increase the number of flights, including international routes. But if they do, receiving folks from other countries can easily raise the risk of new infections.

The domino effects of our situation in the US are multifold and severe. Yet, the odds that we have even a mild control over it are pretty slim in my opinion. Remember the last time we had fewer than 35,000 new cases a day was almost 2 months ago and you have to go back to 22nd March 2020 to find the last time we had fewer than 10,000 new cases a day.

This is not a summer that I could ever envision. I miss the feeling of sitting in a coffee shop for a couple of hours and working on my laptop. I miss sitting on a patio and having fun with my friends. I miss going to the office to meet my colleagues. I miss going to a park without wearing a mask. We could have had a chance at all of that if we had done a better job of handling this crisis.

The US is trying to shoot itself in the foot again, with this move

Yesterday, the Trump administration announced new immigration policies that concern specifically international students or F-1 visa holders. Per the new policies, if students already in the US attend only online courses in the upcoming fall semester, they will face deportation. To avoid that horrible fate, students can transfer to another institution where in-class sessions are available and take those classes. For prospective students who are coming to the US for online-only programs, they can no longer come here. The policies sparked an outrage by anyone who has a vested interest or those who really care about this country’s competitiveness moving forward.

Let me tell you a personal story. 3 months after I came to the US, my two Belgian friends and I joined a 4-day hiking trip with some American friends to Badland National Park. It was my first hiking trip ever. We spent time before the trip getting to know each other and learning the ABCs of the adventure. During the hike, we spent the whole four days talking and doing various activities together. It brought us closer. Towards the end of the trip, on the last night, we sat around a bonfire and had to identify one person in the group that we learned the most from during the trip. Half of them chose me.

The point here is not to boast, I just don’t know any other example, but to say that international students can help Americans gain exposure to other cultures. I was really surprised that some people I met in Nebraska had never boarded a plane before, let alone going overseas. If there were no immigrants here in the US, how else could they gain real-life exposure to other cultures and widen their horizon? That’s one of the benefits international students bring. Well, unless you don’t think knowing about another country or culture is a good thing.

Another real benefit is the contribution to the economy. A study estimated that international students contributed $45 billion in 2018 to the US economy. That’s a significant sum. This policy wouldn’t normally affect that sum too much, I suppose; however, given the pandemic still raging on in the US, a lot of schools now have to offer online courses to protect both students and staff. The current situation makes this policy more dangerous and seriously more harmful to the economy that already took a hit from Covid-19.

For years, the US has benefited greatly from brain drain and the arrival of immigrants. Many immigrants founded great startups here after school, created jobs and contributed to the economy. Many immigrants came to study and stayed to contribute to the academic and scientific advances for the US. Many immigrants are still running the biggest tech companies in the US.

With these policies, the US basically says no the future influx of skilled immigrants. In the past, the country might get away with it, but globalization made the competition for international talent fiercer. Other countries with immigrant-friendly policies such as France, Canada and Germany are more than happy to pick up skilled workers that the US turns away.

While I was still in school, I met two Americans who were roommates to my Belgian friends and I am not exaggerating when I say this: they don’t know how to do basic maths as 20-year-olds. What does it have to do with the newly announced policies? 1) the presence of international students shouldn’t affect the learning of Americans. Whether we are here or not, Americans should be able to learn unimpeded or affected. 2) If some Americans don’t know how to maths while in university, how can they compete with skilled and educated immigrants for high-paying and technical jobs? If some local students refuse to get educated and work in STEM fields, how would the absence of international students help technology companies and other businesses in the US?

In summary, I don’t see a single one beneficiary of these policies. Universities will suffer financially because foreign students pay much higher tuition fees than locals and contribute greatly to the student communities. The economy will suffer financially because those $45 billion contribution will be reduced significantly. Businesses will suffer because there will be less talent. If schools force staff and students to go back to the classrooms under the government’s pressure, don’t be surprised that we will still have Covid-19 decimating our communities at the end of the year. Think about 5 months ago. Did anyone of us imagine that by July we usually break record for the number of cases in a day?

All of this is nothing more than a couple of xenophobic, cruel and terrible policies whose sole objective is to fire up a support base at the expense of the country and to hide the failure in dealing with the pandemic. Sadly, the US is shooting itself in the foot, again.

Supreme Court’s role in immunity for the police – the importance of voting for democracy, not partisanship

How Supreme Court puts its thumb on the scale to seemingly savor the police

Qualified immunity is a legal protection granted by Supreme Court to shield government employees from frivolous lawsuits. In the case of the police which can exercise lethal forces upon citizens, the implications of qualified immunity can be profound. While it’s legitimate to offer police officers latitude in doing their job, qualified immunity can also be overused as a protection from misdemeanors. In this article, Reuters looked into how Supreme Court sided with the police in case involving use of excessive force. I highly recommend that you read the article. Some highlights that I think are important are as follows

In a dissent to a 2018 ruling, Sotomayor, joined by fellow liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, wrote that the majority’s decision favoring the cops tells police that “they can shoot first and think later, and it tells the public that palpably unreasonable conduct will go unpunished.”

In that case, Kisela v. Hughes, the justices threw out a lower court’s ruling that denied immunity to a Tucson, Arizona, cop who shot a mentally ill woman four times as she walked down her driveway while holding a large kitchen knife.

A year earlier, Sotomayor in another dissent called out her fellow justices for a “disturbing trend” of favoring police. “We have not hesitated to summarily reverse courts for wrongly denying officers the protection of qualified immunity,” Sotomayor wrote, citing several recent rulings. “But we rarely intervene where courts wrongly afford officers the benefit of qualified immunity.”

Source: Reuters

The main challenge for plaintiffs in excessive force cases is to show that police behavior violated a “clearly established” precedent. The Supreme Court has continually reinforced a narrow definition of “clearly established,” requiring lower courts to accept as precedent only cases that have detailed circumstances very similar to the case they are weighing.

In February, the federal appeals court in Cincinnati, Ohio, granted immunity to an officer who shot and wounded a 14-year-old boy in the shoulder after the boy dropped a BB gun and raised his hands. The court rejected as a precedent a 2011 case in which an officer shot and killed a man as he began lowering a shotgun. The difference between the incidents was too great, the court determined, because the boy had first drawn the BB gun from his waistband before dropping it.

In other recent cases, courts have sided with police because of the difference between subduing a woman for walking away from an officer, and subduing a woman for refusing to end a phone call; between shooting at a dog and instead hitting a child, and shooting at a truck and hitting a passenger; and between unleashing a police dog to bite a motionless suspect in a bushy ravine, and unleashing a police dog to bite a compliant suspect in a canal in the woods.

The Supreme Court in 2009 raised the bar even higher for plaintiffs to overcome qualified immunity. In Pearson v. Callahan, it gave judges the option to simply ignore the question of whether a cop used excessive force and instead focus solely on whether the conduct was clearly established as unlawful.

By allowing judges to consider only the question of clearly established law in excessive force cases, the Supreme Court created a closed loop in which “the case law gets frozen,” said lawyer Matt Farmer, who represented Lewis’s family.

Source: Reuters

I am not sure I know of situations where the odds are stacked against citizens more. Citizens, in general, do not possess weapons or resources to self-defend against authority which, ironically, is supposed to protect citizens in the first place. In cases where abuse of power is apparent, the laws, as you already see, are not on citizens’ side, either. It’s obviously a disturbing phenomenon to witness. One must wonder whether this qualified immunity and the Supreme Court’s tendency to rule in favor of the police contributes to the abuse of power and excessive use of force.

Vote. Vote. Vote. On every level.

Former President Obama penned a thoughtful blog post detailing his opinion on how the country can move forward from the current crisis. You can read it here

Second, I’ve heard some suggest that the recurrent problem of racial bias in our criminal justice system proves that only protests and direct action can bring about change, and that voting and participation in electoral politics is a waste of time. I couldn’t disagree more. The point of protest is to raise public awareness, to put a spotlight on injustice, and to make the powers that be uncomfortable; in fact, throughout American history, it’s often only been in response to protests and civil disobedience that the political system has even paid attention to marginalized communities. But eventually, aspirations have to be translated into specific laws and institutional practices— and in a democracy, that only happens when we elect government officials who are responsive to our demands.

Source: Barack Obama

Unfortunately, voter turnout in these local races is usually pitifully low, especially among young people — which makes no sense given the direct impact these offices have on social justice issues, not to mention the fact that who wins and who loses those seats is often determined by just a few thousand, or even a few hundred, votes.

So the bottom line is this: if we want to bring about real change, then the choice isn’t between protest and politics. We have to do both. We have to mobilize to raise awareness, and we have to organize and cast our ballots to make sure that we elect candidates who will act on reform.

Finally, the more specific we can make demands for criminal justice and police reform, the harder it will be for elected officials to just offer lip service to the cause and then fall back into business as usual once protests have gone away

Source: Barack Obama

The former President said it better than I think I can. So, vote whenever you can because our life depends on your votes a lot. It’s the most powerful weapon you can have in a democracy. What I really hate is that some folks relinquish their voting duty because their “guy or gal” isn’t a candidate or there is only one or two issues that they disagree with their candidate.

Vote for democracy, not partisanship

A study published on Cambridge Press examined whether Americans were willing to trade democracy for partisanship in voting.

…in states and districts where one party enjoys a significant electoral advantage, politicians from the majority party may be effectively insulated from an electoral punishment for violating democratic principles. To get a sense of the real-world relevance of this implication, consider that in 2016 only 5.1% of US House districts were won by a margin of less than 6.9%—the smallest margin that Table 4 implies is necessary for violations of democratic principles to be electorally self-defeating. That share of districts was still only 15.2% in 2018. Put bluntly, our estimates suggest that in the vast majority of U.S. House districts, a majority-party candidate could openly violate one of the democratic principles we examined and nonetheless get away with it.

Source: Cambridge Press

Our analysis of a candidate-choice experiment as well as a natural experiment consistently found that only a small fraction of Americans prioritize democratic principles in their electoral choices when doing so goes against their partisan identification or favorite policies. We proposed that this is the consequence of two mechanisms: (i) voters are willing to trade off democratic principles for partisan ends and (ii) voters employ a partisan “double standard” when punishing candidates who violate democratic principles. These tendencies were exacerbated by several types of polarization, including intense partisanship, extreme policy preferences, and divergence in candidate platforms. Put simply, polarization undermines the public’s ability to serve as a democratic check.

We conclude by discussing the implications of these findings for our understanding of democratic stability in the United States and the rest of the world. We saw that roughly 10–13% of our respondents—depending on the type of contests considered—value democracy enough to punish otherwise favored candidates for violating democratic principles by voting against them

Source: Cambridge Press

What does that mean? In my opinion, if voters were more willing to cross the partisanship line and vote for a person of a different party, it means that the partisanship and the divide within the country would be less severe. Lawmakers would be forced to be more accountable and to offer bipartisan legislations. The world is too diverse and lively for any of us to stubbornly stick to a rigid ideology. If one party is too egregious and the other party’s candidate shares more values with you, you should vote on shared human values, not partisan ideologies or “stick it to somebody else”.

Medicare for all

Healthcare is one of the most pressing and polarizing topics among American voters in this election. Democratic candidates are pushing for, in different forms, Medicare For All (MFA), an idea that many conservatives are vehemently against. Voters have been bombarded with claims about how horrible the current system is (for very good reasons) and also with warnings that MFA will be hugely expensive, lengthen the waiting time and limit choices.

To help you be more informed of the issue, I’ll recommend this piece by John Oliver and his team. It does have a view as in the presenter advocates for some form of MFA, but even if you have doubts about MFA, you should also give it a listen. In addition, there is a recent study by The Lancet, an independent medical journal, on the impact of a single pay, universal healthcare system in the US. Here is a sneak peak

Although health care expenditure per capita is higher in the USA than in any other country, more than 37 million Americans do not have health insurance, and 41 million more have inadequate access to care.

Efforts are ongoing to repeal the Affordable Care Act which would exacerbate health-care inequities. By contrast, a universal system, such as that proposed in the Medicare for All Act, has the potential to transform the availability and efficiency of American health-care services.

Taking into account both the costs of coverage expansion and the savings that would be achieved through the Medicare for All Act, we calculate that a single-payer, universal health-care system is likely to lead to a 13% savings in national health-care expenditure, equivalent to more than US$450 billion annually (based on the value of the US$ in 2017).

The entire system could be funded with less financial outlay than is incurred by employers and households paying for health-care premiums combined with existing government allocations

Source: The Lancet

You can read the study by registering for free on The Lancet’s website, but you can also download a copy from the link below since I already did so for you (I’m nice that way). All the copyrights belong to The Lancet. I highly recommend it. It’s an informative read.

For example, a vial of insulin costs approximately $300 in the USA compared with $30 in Canada.

The average cost of giving birth in Spain is $2333 compared with $14910 in the USA, yet the prevalence of neonatal mortality in the USA is double that in Spain.

Source: The Lancet

Personally, I think that having one single payer will give back a tremendous amount of bargaining power back to the payer. If that payer is a private company, then there is an incentive alignment as the company will want to maximize profits by inflating the bills and taking more money from citizens, which is the opposite of what the people want. Instead, if the payer is the government whose interest is to keep the cost down given that the tax revenue doesn’t increase and whose lawmakers’ interest is to keep being elected to office, then there is an incentive alignment with that of citizens. Healthcare service suppliers will have no choice, but to work more in the interest of citizens.

Admittedly, there will be flaws with MFA. But I agree with John Oliver. A carefully designed MFA that can help improve the current system, albeit still with flaws, will be appreciated.

Weekly readings – 26th October 2019

AWS Customers Rack Up Hefty Bills for Moving Data. Cloud spending isn’t as cheap as some may think.

The Heart of a Swimmer vs. the Heart of a Runner

Source: DuckDuckGo

Craftmanship in 1930 Vietnam as Seen in Paris Specialized Municipal Libraries. If you want to see a little bit of how Vietnam looked almost 100 years ago, here is a great article

Jeff Bezos’s Master Plan

Is Amazon Unstoppable?

News tab on Facebook

A great post with usrprising details on the spectacular fall of WeWork

Are we going to have 5G in the US soon?

First of all, what is 5G? 5G is generally seen as the fifth generation cellular network technology that provides broadband access (Wikipedia). The technology, in theory, allows for support for many more devices in the same area and much faster speed than the current 4G technology. It has been touted as one of the core components in our future society and received a lot of hype in the past few years. Here is what Loup Ventures has to say about when 5G is going to be commonly available:

On June 28th, T-Mobile will be the 4th US carrier to “launch” 5G in the US with 6 initial cities. While encouraging, we’re still in the buildup phase, likely two years away from the average consumer using 5G. To put this into perspective, we believe, by the end of 2022, about 75% of the US population will have access to 5G, essentially 2 years behind AT&T’s recent estimate of roughly 66% by the end of 2020. 

Loup Ventures Newsletter 29th June 2019 Issue

But are we though?

Wired has a great article on the different approach the US chose for 5G adoption, compared to other countries. Here is a quote that summarizes well such a difference (a bit long)

“…The traditional sweet spot for wireless service has been in what we call low-band or mid-band spectrum. This is between 600 MHz and 3 GHz. For a long time, these airwaves were considered beachfront property because they send signals far. In other words, they cover wide areas but require little power to do so. This makes them especially attractive for service in rural areas, where technology that can reach more people with less infrastructure makes greater economic sense.

For 5G, however, the United States has focused on making high-band spectrum the core of its early 5G approach. These airwaves, known as “millimeter wave,” are way, way up there—above 24 GHz. They have never been used in cellular networks before, and for good reason—they don’t send signals very far and are easily blocked by walls. That means they are very expensive to build out. On the flip side, these airwaves offer a lot more capacity, which translates into ultrafast speeds.

The United States is alone in this mission to make millimeter wave the core of its domestic 5G networks. The rest of the world is taking a different approach. Other nations vying for wireless leadership are not putting high-band airwaves front and center now. Instead, they are focusing on building 5G networks with mid-band spectrum, because it will support faster, cheaper, and more ubiquitous 5G deployment. Take China, which allocated large swaths of mid-band spectrum for its carriers last year, clearing the way for deployment in a country that is also home to Huawei, the largest telecommunications equipment supplier worldwide. South Korea and Australia wrapped up an auction of key mid-band spectrum last year. At roughly the same time, Spain and Italy held their own auctions for mid-band airwaves. Austria did the same earlier this year. Switzerland, Germany, and Japan also auctioned a range of mid-band spectrum just a few months ago. The United States, however, has made zero mid-band spectrum available at auction for the 5G economy. Moreover, it has zero mid-band auctions scheduled.” –

Wired – Choosing the wrong lane to race to 5G

In short, to access the very high-speed 5G in the US, you need to live close to the towers. The farther you live from them, the worse the connection will be. All would be OK if it were easy and cheap to build those towers everywhere. But it’s not.

Per Wall Streets Journal:

This is the paradox of 5G, the collection of technologies behind next-generation wireless networks: They require a gargantuan quantity of wires. This is because 5G requires many more small towers, all of which must be wired to the internet. The consequences of this unavoidable reality are myriad. The 5G build-out, which could take more than a decade, could disrupt our commutes, festoon nearly every city block with antennas, limit what cities can charge for renting spots on their infrastructure to carriers on which to place their antennas, and result in an unequal distribution of access to high-speed wireless, at least at first.

In a 2017 report, Deloitte Consulting LLP principal Dan Littmann estimated that it will take combined carrier spending of between $130 billion and $150 billion in order for most Americans—including those in rural areas—to have a choice of providers of high-speed broadband and 5G wireless. Marachel Knight, the senior vice president in charge of rolling out 5G at AT&T, says her company estimates it will take a decade to completely build out its 5G network.

The driving force behind this enormous build-out is that 5G networks don’t work like previous wireless cellular networks. Where 2G, 3G and even 4G rely on large towers with powerful antennas that can cover many square miles, the shorter-range, higher-frequency radio waves used by 5G networks—essential to their ability to deliver the 10- to 100-times faster speeds they promise—mean that 5G networks must have small cells placed much closer together.

Typically these small cells must be placed about 800 to 1,000 feet apart, says AT&T’s Ms. Knight. Small-cell antennas are typically the size of a pizza box, but can be much larger, and require both a fiber-optic connection to the internet and access to power. They go wherever there’s space: on buildings, new 5G-ready telephone poles and, often, retrofitted lampposts. In 2018, the U.S. had 349,344 cell sites, according to CTIA, a wireless industry trade organization. The organization estimates that—to achieve full 5G coverage—carriers will have to roll out an additional 769,000 small cells by 2026.

In a nutshell, I don’t think we are going to have 5G for the majority of Americans soon. There may be a portion of the population who fortunately will have access to the technology. The rest will have to wait till the infrastructure is amply built.

When it comes to hyped technology, I think it’s always a good idea to be vigilant, avoid the hype, go into more details and take a more conservative stance. We don’t lack examples of techs that have been hyped for years but are nowhere near to being common: AI, autonomous vehicles, 5G…

Heck, a lot of Americans don’t have access to Internet

With GDP per capita 25 times smaller than that of America, Vietnam still pays more for gas

On 2nd May, 2019, an increase in gas price in Vietnam was announced, an 8th time such a development took place in 2019. Here is a chart that illustrates the gas price in 2019 so far. The number is in VND, our national currency. The exchange rate is at 23,314 VND for $1

Source: Le Nguyen Huong Tra

Those are the two types of gas we use in Vietnam with the green one as the more popular choice and we measure it in liter, not gallon. With the exchange rate of 23,314 VND for $1, Vietnamese pay approximately $0.95 for a liter (22,190 divided by 23,314).

According to gasprices.aaa, the national average gas price in the US is $2.888 per gallon. As a gallon is worth 3.785 liters, on average Americans pay $0.76 per liter for gas. Given that GDP per capita in the US and Vietnam in 2017 is $59,532 and $2,343 respectively, according to WorldBank, it’s extraordinary that we pay more per liter in the poorer country.

I am not a chemical expert and the gas used in each country may be different in essence, but it serves the same function and the living costs in both countries are affected by gas prices.

The difference is even worse when you compare the gas price in Vietnam to affluent states in America. Keep in mind that different in America, where gas price varies from one state to another, Vietnam has universal gas price regardless of where you live in the country. Take Massachusetts as an example. GDP per capita in the state in 2017 is $64,507, but the gas price in the state is just $0.75 liter, compared to $0.95 in Vietnam.

Unless I am missing something terribly important in my assumptions, the expensive gas price that we have to pay in Vietnam is ridiculous and ludicrous. And how many companies would give employees a raise 8 times in a span of 5 months to keep up with the increasing living costs? Exactly!

Paperwork Nightmare

The name convention in Vietnam is LastName – MiddleName – FirstName, the opposite of the Western name convention. The name on our passport is displayed in our convention. So when the folks at the US Embassy process a visa application, the name on the visa becomes MiddleName – FirstName – LastName. That’s what happened to me.

To apply for a student visa in the US, one is given a paper called I-20 by his or her school. I-20 is a must when the student applies for an American student visa. My name on I-20 is correct as in FirstName – MiddleName – LastName.

Upon landing in the US, immigrants have another form called I-94, which records the last time one enters the US. My name on I-94 follows the name on my visa and as a consequence, is incorrect. Somehow, my name on Social Security Card is correct as in FirstName – MiddleName – LastName.

Two days ago, my school updated my I-20 to match the name on my visa and I-94. Now, my name is consistent on I-20, visa and I-94…in an incorrect way. The only one odd out is my Social Security Card in a, ironically, correct way. Moving forward, I will either have to change names on visa, I-20 or I-94 or I will have to change my name on Social Security Card. I know my choice. Not much. Still a choice. But going to a Social Security Administration for anything is never a pleasant experience. A friend of mine had the same trouble. It took him 6 months to get it fixed.

From now on, my First Name in the US is my Middle Name. Imagine the inconvenience. And none of this is my fault.

Update on OPT

While we are talking about paperwork and bureaucracy, I want to talk a bit about the OPT process. As a STEM student (who studies science, technology, economics or maths), I can have 3 years of OPT after graduation. Within those 3 years, I will have to get either a working visa or a green card. Otherwise, I’ll be kicked out of the country.

Students cannot apply for OPT earlier than 90 days before graduation. But the process takes at least 3 months and sometime much longer. It means that international students may not have jobs in the meantime and hence income. Their chance of employment can be put at risk if the process takes too long. After an OPT is approved, a student can work for one year. STEM students can apply for one year extension. However, the STEM process is even more difficult as the student and employer have to work out a training plan with goals and how to achieve those goals. Goals have to relate to STEM degrees. During the OPT time, students have to send a report every 6 months, detailing what they do at their job. And there are a bunch of other requirements.

My intention is not to complain. This is to shed light on a frustrating process that should have been easier. International students are here to make a career and pay taxes. We are supposed to work and contribute while staying here. But even that is made very difficult.

What if that were me?

I believe that the world would be a much better place if each of us put ourselves in others’ shoes before taking a course of action. There has been a lot of divisiveness, argument and tension that could have been avoided, especially when it comes to immigration, if we had had more compassion for others. I’d like to share what I have been through in the past two years in the US. These are personal experiences and stories I came to know from my close friends.

Administrative hurdles

Before I could board a plane to the US, I had to apply for a student visa just like so many others. After tedious preparation with plenty of paperwork, I had an interview with an immigration officer at the US Embassy. At that point, the result was essentially out of my control. The officers have the authority to deny or accept visa applications on the spot without having to give a detailed explanation. A rejection certainly doesn’t do an application any favor for future attempts. My experience is nothing compared to other refugee applicants; which John Oliver explained here. Let me tell you: it’s not easy or enjoyable to even be able to board a plane to the US.

The first time I was in the US, I landed in O’Hare airport in Chicago. There are two lines at every international airport in the US. One is for permanent residents and US citizens while the other is for other folks. It takes normally at least 1.5 or 2 hours to get through the long line of immigrants waiting to be verified by the immigration officers. These officers have the authority to deny an immigrant entry to the country and to put him/her on the plane back to the origin. Since going to Omaha always requires a connecting flight from a bigger airport such as Seattle, Chicago or New York, I always have to look for flights that must have more than 2 hours in layover. Usually, it results in a more expensive flight ticket. Imagine that was you. Would it be comfortable that you stood in line for 2 hours doing nothing, with luggage and sometimes with your crying babies after hours of flight?

I had to come back to Vietnam to renew my student visa. I used to live in a town of 50,000 people in Finland for more than two years. Every year, the only thing I needed to do to have my visa renewed was to visit the local police station and 80 euros. With the US, I had to be physically in Vietnam to apply for a renewal. I didn’t mind a chance to visit my family and friends, but it came with almost 70 hours of flight and $1,600 for a round-trip flight ticket. Before booking my flight, I was looking for a cheaper alternative. There was an option involving a layover in Canada that would cost $300-400 less. The caveat was that I would have to apply for a transit visa. The possible savings weren’t worth the administrative trouble I’d have to go through for the transit visa. What if you were me or any other immigrant? How would you feel about the troubles we had?

After renewing my visa, I came back to the US and landed in Seattle for a layover. After the lengthy immigration process at the checkpoint, I was pulled in for a random luggage investigation. I had no idea why I was pulled in, but I wasn’t going to protest or make a scene. I brought Vietnamese coffee in my luggage for personal consumption (by the way, we have great coffee!). When I opened my luggage, I saw a note saying that somebody already checked my luggage and there was coffee all over my belongings. The officer opened another bag of coffee to check. After a 5-minute check, I was allowed to retrieve my luggage and get on my way. Needless to say, I had to wash my clothes off the spilled coffee.

Racism

I suffered two incidents of racism myself while in the US. One time, I was walking to a bar in the middle of an area full of bars and clubs in Omaha. A car passed by and a young woman pointed a middle finger towards me and shouted aloud: “fuck you Asian”.

The other time was close to my university campus. I was waiting at the bus stop to go home. Standing with me was an African American guy and we started to converse to kill time. There was nobody with us there. Suddenly, a car with loud music inside passed and somebody shouted aloud: “shut the fuck up!”.

What if the roles were reversed? Would any American honestly feel that such behavior was acceptable?

Working in the US

I have been lucky enough to have a job here. The struggle wasn’t easy, though. We immigrants don’t speak the language fluently and don’t understand the local culture completely. There were a few times at my office when I didn’t get the jokes from my colleagues. As immigrants, we also bring with us the future requirement for a visa sponsorship. Companies are not in the business to lose money. So, the requirement doesn’t do our applications any favor. If you think it’s easy for immigrants to secure a job, you may want to think again.

I have two close friends whom I have known for 8 years and are living the same building as I am. They graduated in 2016 and have been working as full-time employees for more than 2 years. They are highly educated with a dual Master’s degree and absolute contributors to their respective companies. Nonetheless, none have secured a working visa for no reasons that anybody can explain. They have been working in the US with their OPT legally, but haven’t left the country for 5 years. A lot of life plans and decisions hinge on whether they can get a visa. Just spare a second to think about all the uncertainty in life that results from the anti-immigrant policy.

 

I am not trying to complain. What I have experienced is much better than many other immigrants and refugees have. The point is that to be able to live, study or work here legally, it is not easy at all for us. There are many difficulties and challenges involved. As an American, you can go to any country to travel for 30 days without a visa. You can earn a lot of money in developing countries by teaching English, the language that you speak fluently already. Whenever you come back to the US, you don’t have to wait in line for hours or live in uncertainty that an officer can put you back on a plane on the spot. In the US, you have an advantage in job search as there is no required sponsorship or gap in local culture.

Surely, there are some bad apples among immigrants, but the number makes up only a small percentage of all immigrants. It doesn’t make sense to generalize all immigrants and treat us with hate. Put yourself in our shoes. How would you feel if you had to go through what we went through?

Everything would be much better if everyone could take a second to wonder “what would happen if it happened to me?” or “what if that were me?”