“I need a social security number to work and I can’t get it”

Heidi Hai, 23, Shanghai (China)

I am a first-year law student in New York City and I feel lucky that my summer internship in a law firm did not get cancelled. But I might not be able to do it anyway.

Here in the United States you need a social security number (SSN) to get paid, but because of coronavirus the office has been closed and I have not been able to get my application processed. I called the office a couple of times, but they don’t have an answer for cases like mine. They only have emergency meetings for people in dire situations such as those having housing issues or in need of health care. In those cases they can process applications, which is totally understandable because we are in a pandemic and we should prioritize those most in need. But I also think it’s important to recognize that we international students are paying a price because many of us need a SSN to work over summer. Our situation is just not seen as an emergency and there is no answer to how we should proceed. They told me to try and negotiate with my employer, who on the other hand has been asking when my application will be processed. And of course I don’t have an answer to this.

Heidi eats Takoyaki, a Japanese dish, on the Low Steps of Columbia University in 2019.

This is just one of the additional challenges posed to international students during this pandemic — we already have other mental health challenges, such as not seeing anyone and being so far away from our families. They are not able to come visit us and we are not able to go back home. And then there is this external stress of not knowing if we will be able to work over summer as well as in the longer term because of the new immigration policies the government is discussing.

If I am able to do my internship, it will be remotely. I think the law firm is still figuring out how to organize it — they recently sent me a survey on my expectations. At the moment I only know that the one-week training I was supposed to have in the Seattle home office has been cancelled. It would have been a really nice opportunity to meet the attorneys there and get to know the other summer associates; instead, we will have to head into substantive work right away.  

My internship also got cut short to six weeks from ten, so I need to figure out what to do in August. I’d like to go back to China, but I also don’t want to take the risk of not being allowed back in the US because of travel bans. But I miss my family. My mum was supposed to come visit me and I was really looking forward to showing her my new environment here in New York City. We’re always hoping that somehow the next day or the next week things will get better and we will be able to meet. So far it’s been a very lonely quarantine — I live in a dorm where only one of my friends stayed. I joke that apart from when I am eating, I don’t really have to open my mouth because there is no one to talk to.

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