International students face legal hurdles

Mohamad Alajaj, an international student at the University of Minnesota, knows firsthand that run-ins with the police can be complicated due to cultural reasons.

When stopped for speeding last month, Alajaj couldn’t provide proof of insurance and the officer “could not decipher” his Saudi Arabian driver’s license, most of which was written in Arabic, according to a police report.

And because Alajaj didn’t get a new license soon enough after his arrival in the states, it was considered invalid and his car was impounded.

“I admit I was wrong, and I’m fine with getting a ticket, but not if they took my car,” Alajaj said. He eventually got his car back through a friend with a Minnesota license, but Alajaj attributes the incident to a misunderstanding between him and the officer.

For Alajaj and other University international students — who make up about 12 percent of the Twin Cities’ campus population — legal entanglements can have an added layer of nuance.

University police Lt. David Wilske said international students are sometimes unaware of certain state laws and police officers can get caught off guard by foreign languages and customs.

“One of the struggles that we have is all the cultures that are at the University,” Wilske said. “We run into this kind of thing quite a bit … but we attempt to give [international students] the benefit of the doubt.”

Most of the foreign cases University Student Legal Service sees are related to visas and study abroad trips, where the most severe potential punishment — and one that’s never been used — is loss of status, USLS director Mark Karon said.

To his knowledge, no University international student has ever been deported or had their status revoked, Karon said.

More often, he said, cultural differences factor into how USLS attorneys advise clients and the police.

For example, Linda Aaker, one of USLS’ two attorneys who specialize in immigration, said she sometimes sees domestic violence cases involving international students.

“What’s considered domestic violence here may not be the same in other countries,” Aaker said. “Some people speak louder, and that could cause neighbors to think they’re yelling or something.”

And the stigma of being charged with a crime varies from country to country, Karon said, so USLS will sometimes warn University police to be more sensitive when dealing with international offenders.

“In some cases, it’s just so culturally inappropriate to be charged with a crime,” Karon said.

Other times, he said communication issues can be problematic.

Wilske said the University of Minnesota Police Department receives training that challenges its officers to take a broader look at the school’s diversity.

“Some people react differently to police being in their house,” Wilske said. “We definitely receive diversity training about that.”

For example, he said, it may be a cultural norm to ask officers that they remove their shoes upon entering someone’s home. But in some cases, he’s heard of international students using that custom to distract officers.

Understanding the subtleties involved with working with international students takes ongoing training, Wilske said, which is sometimes provided by Hmong UMPD officers or a local Somali attorney.

“It doesn’t even have to be the Hmong officers,” Wilske said. “We’re constantly talking to each other about what we just learned, so it’s kind of like on-the-job training.”

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