Notes from Above the Ground: Protecting the Legal Rights of International Students

By Jonathan D. Messinger

International university students in metropolitan Boston, with very few exceptions, are not eligible for the blessing/curse yoke of debt many of you reading this now are enduring known as student loans. Contemporary degree acquisition can be quite an expensive proposition. By way of example, our three largest institutes of higher learning by student population, also happen to be the three most expensive—Boston ($59,100 in yearly tuition and fees), Harvard ($57,950), Northeastern ($53,226)—which each require undergraduate degree seekers, or their families or backers, to spend a quarter of a million United States Dollars over four years to earn a B.A. or B.S. Such education expenses are nothing short of obscene, deeply unsustainable and certainly worthy of further analysis.

Compounding this financial burden, international students are not allowed, due to work visa restrictions, to earn a “legal” living wage to offset these costs. And they are often subject to the whims of mercurial, culturally illiterate professors, advisers and administrators whose decisions, sometimes arbitrarily, but frequently profoundly, change these students’ professional and personal lives.

Consider the case of Makato, a Japanese student at a prominent local university studying psychology. When Makato first sought legal assistance several years ago, he was distraught because he had just been summarily expelled from his university without adequate justification, only one week before the completion of his final internship. In an all too common pattern, this university accepted his tuition money, as well as tuition money from many other foreign students in his particular course of study, then slowly and methodically reduced their group through harassment, bullying and discrimination.

Reasons given for international students not being allowed to complete their degrees included a lack of language skills (the irony that all of these young people speak and write in at least two languages when those who “judge” them for their alleged lack of English fluency mostly spoke only one language is but one very painful double standard here), a purported inability of instructors to understand different cultural learning styles, and/or that these students were working part-time at local community businesses “under the table” without official university or government permission. Such methods of exploitation are cringe worthy, especially because these international students often lack the power or the connections to fight back when they are told they will not be allowed to complete their degrees.

Makoto was verbally abused so many times by the director of his program that he cried. He was then sent to the university-approved therapist to obtain a “report” regarding his mental health. Makato wrote in his journal around that time: “I was very depressed – angry but sad. Suddenly I lost my internship, and couldn’t received the credit from the program. On top of that, I was scored the lowest which is very fatal since international students are not allowed to receive the lowest score or immigration can send me back to Japan for not studying hard enough. I visited university offices, the dean of students, my adviser and professors. No one was able to help me with this situation. The internship director told an untrue story about me to the university. She said that I was ‘always late, unfriendly, unskilled, had bad attitude, and we decided we can’t handle him anymore.’ None of this was accurate, and I felt very hurt and helpless. I needed to get a lawyer, but most of them wanted at least $5,000 to help me.”

Instead of proactively implementing solutions to help Makoto complete his degree, the university dispatched him to a therapist who produced a biased and troubling report, used in concert with the internship director’s prior statements, as “evidence” to warrant the expulsion of Makato. (Need dear readers be reminded of the brutal, sometimes suicide-inducing shame which accompanies academic failure in Japanese culture?) The good news for Makato is that he found an effective and affordable legal professional to fight successfully for his university reinstatement. His lawyer confronted the therapist directly at his office with a readied lawsuit, and simultaneously demanded legitimate administrative procedural due process from the dean of students at the university. Makato has since graduated, qualified for and obtained a work visa. He has even started his own psychology practice which promotes healing for young people in both Japan and the United States.

Other international students are not as fortunate, however. Thus we in the legal community must seek out, support and protect all the Makatos among us. We should, every chance we get, thank them for their valuable contributions to lives, and try to learn from them as much as they want to learn from us.


Jonathan D. Messinger is a Boston and New York-based attorney and a member of the NLG Board.

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