Tighter U.S. Immigration Controls On Inbound Chinese Students Stoke Concern

In Peter Hessler’s latest piece for The New Yorker, “How Chinese Students Experience America,” he notes that “COVID, guns, anti-Asian violence, and diplomatic relations have complicated the ambitions of the some three hundred thousand college students who come to the U.S. each year.” One of the first places that some of these hurdles manifest is at the American border, where a growing number of Chinese students and researchers have recently found themselves unexpectedly barred entry to the U.S. on the basis of broad national security concerns. Experts argue that the political inertia behind these immigration restrictions has a self-defeating logic that harms both Chinese students and U.S. interests.

This week, Amy Hawkins from The Guardian described cases of “chilling” interrogations and deportations of Chinese students holding valid visas:

“The impact is huge,” says Qin Yan, a professor of pathology at Yale School of Medicine in Connecticut, who says that he is aware of more than a dozen Chinese students from Yale and other universities who have been rejected by the US in recent months, despite holding valid visas. Experiments have stalled, and there is a “chilling effect” for the next generation of Chinese scientists.

[…] “It is very hard for a [Customs and Border Protections] officer to really evaluate the risk of espionage,” said Dan Berger, an immigration lawyer in Massachusetts, who represents a graduate student at Yale who, midway through her PhD, was sent back from Washington’s Dulles airport in December, and banned from re-entering the US for five years.

[…] Academics say that scrutiny has widened to different fields – particularly medical sciences – with the reasons for the refusals not made clear.

X Edward Guo, a professor of biomedical engineering at Columbia University, said that part of the problem is that […] military research does sometimes take place on university campuses. “It’s not black and white … there are medical universities that also do military. But 99% of those professors are doing biomedical research and have nothing to do with the military.” [Source]

Lily Kuo and Cate Cadell from The Washington Post reported last month on related cases of Chinese students being harshly treated at the U.S. border, which has disrupted their lives and altered their perceptions of the U.S.:

Six Chinese students and two visiting scholars who spoke to The Washington Post described being questioned upon landing in the United States about their research, families and any possible connection to China’s ruling Communist Party. Two of them, their visas canceled, were immediately repatriated. All but one were midway through their studies and had previously been allowed to enter with valid visas.

It is difficult to quantify the number of Chinese students who have been rejected at the border, with both Chinese and U.S. officials declining to provide detailed figures. But the State Department says the number of Chinese students detained and found inadmissible for entry at U.S. ports has remained stable in recent years — representing fewer than 0.1 percent of those who arrive. The State Department and the Department of Homeland Security declined to provide figures on how that compared with other nationalities.

[…] There is no way for students to restore a canceled visa aside from filing a motion to have the decision reviewed by Customs and Border Protection.

[…] “We talk about China being a surveillance state, and you arrive in the U.S. and the U.S. definitely appears to be a surveillance state,” said [Clyde Yicheng Wang, an assistant professor in politics and East Asian studies at Washington and Lee University, who was questioned by CBP about his relations to CCP members]. “I can definitely see that becoming a moment of disillusion.” [Source]

News of this phenomenon has spread back to China, where it feeds into an information environment rife with portrayals of Western societies in disarray. The Chinese embassy in the U.S. issued a critical statement in January claiming that some Chinese students entering the U.S. had had their electronic devices checked, been denied outside communication, and been detained for more than ten hours. In April, the embassy accused the U.S. of “unjustifiably” sending back nearly 300 Chinese citizens since July 2021, including more than 70 Chinese students that it said had valid travel documents. On WeChat, China Science Daily, part of a news media unit under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, shared an article about a number of Chinese female students who were denied entry at the U.S. border and allegedly subjected to deceitful, punitive treatment by border-patrol officials. Here is an excerpt, translated by Pekingnology, focusing on the case of Ph.D. student Meng Fei, who was repatriated to China upon her arrival in the U.S.:

When signing her statement, Meng was told it was just to confirm the interrogation’s accuracy, but she wasn’t allowed to see the content before signing. Only after signing did she learn that she would not only be repatriated rapidly but also banned for five years. She was outraged because the customs officers kept urging her to accept the decision to return to China during the interrogation, saying she could re-enter easily by reapplying for a visa. The five-year ban was not mentioned during the whole process.

With two armed officers watching, she had no choice but to comply, focusing only on how to leave that dreadful place and contact the outside world.

The nightmare didn’t end there. After an 8-hour wait in the little dark room, Meng confronted a humiliating search, followed by 12 hours in solitary confinement.

[…] The findings [in an Excel document created by Meng Fei, with information from ten other Chinese women who had been repatriated] showed that all ten were graduates from prestigious universities, including Peking University, Tsinghua University, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, Huazhong University of Science and Technology, and University of Electronic Science and Technology of China, among others. Their domestic degrees spanned fields like biological sciences, preventive medicine, statistics, materials physical chemistry, communication engineering, German, and business administration. They were currently studying at U.S. institutions such as Yale University, Johns Hopkins University, and the University of Virginia. Among them, two were first-year master’s students, three first-year Ph.D. students, two fifth-year Ph.D. students, one sixth-year Ph.D. student, one postdoctoral fellow, and one female on a work visa. [Source]

A number of U.S. legal restrictions have been imposed in recent years that have contributed to the climate of scrutiny against Chinese students. President Joe Biden has continued the Trump administration’s policy barring students and researchers linked to Chinese entities that have any connection with the Chinese military. Last year, Florida passed a law restricting public universities and colleges in the state from “accepting grants from or participating in partnerships or agreements” with individuals or schools from China and six other countries (Russia, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela and Syria). The University of Florida enrolls over 1,000 students from these countries, the majority of whom come from China. This increased scrutiny of inbound (and outbound) educational exchange has contributed to a decrease in the number of Chinese students in the U.S. (and American students in China). 

Many argue that this trend is counterproductive for the U.S. Yingyi Ma at the Brookings Institution argued that restrictive immigration policies against Chinese scholars threaten U.S. global leadership in the field of artificial intelligence:

Some may wonder whether the United States should diversify its dependence on foreign talent. Of course, it should. However, there are few alternative sources of AI talent outside of China. While India has overtaken China in the overall number of international students in the United States, it falls significantly short in producing top AI talent, contributing just 5 percent compared to China’s 47 percent. This disparity is largely attributed to the differences in the two countries’ higher education systems: Among the top 25 global institutions recognized for leading AI research, China boasts six such institutions, while India has none.

Fortunately, many U.S.-educated Chinese talent want to stay and work for American companies, especially in the AI industry, as they offer better pay and work-life balance than companies in China. However, U.S. immigration policies create formidable barriers. The tightening of H-1B visa regulations has led to a sharp decline in approval rates, from 46.1 percent in fiscal year 2021 to just 14.6 percent in fiscal year 2024, with Indian applicants securing 70 percent of these visas (in 2021). Considering that the United States has established a comprehensive system to identify foreign agents through visa screenings and law enforcement framework, denying entry to any law-abiding, skilled foreign talent directly undermines America’s capacity for innovation. [Source]

In the Made in China Journal on Tuesday, Yangyang Cheng argued that restrictive U.S. immigration practices against Chinese scholars have expanded in part due to great-power competition, and that the U.S. motivations for such restrictions are rooted in a hypocritical and supremacist logic:

The United States and China Science and Technology Cooperation Agreement (STA), signed in 1979 and generally renewed every five years, is hanging by a second six-month extension as the two sides struggle to reach a deal (Hua 2024). Opponents of the STA argue that Beijing has violated the ‘basis’ of ‘reciprocity’ and that ‘the benefits of scientific cooperation have overwhelmingly flowed one way’—towards China to the detriment of the United States (Razdan 2024; Issa et al. 2023). The transactional logic belies a greater paradox: when the agreement was established in 1979 and in the many years after, both sides understood that Chinese scientists would be learning from the United States to try to catch up. Why is reciprocity pressed as a contractual obligation only with China’s rise, when the former student has become a peer?

[…] Critics of US–China scientific exchange have pointed to Beijing’s protectionist stance and dictatorial regression as breaking the promise of ‘reciprocity’ (Razdan 2024). The proposed responses from the US side, however, are alarmingly like the restrictions put in place by the Chinese State. US lawmakers and tech executives routinely decry China’s use of new technologies to strengthen its military, expand state surveillance, and commit human rights abuses, while doubling down on similar developments and applications at home and with allied countries (AI Now Institute 2023). What they really care about, then, is not how science is used but who uses it. What they hope to protect are not the safety and wellbeing of humanity but their own privileges and power. By denying the Chinese people agency, they project their greed and bloodlust [onto] a faceless other. The national border offers a convenient demarcation and the contours of an enemy. The epithet of ‘communism’ erases the role of global capital as a contributor to and beneficiary of repression in China and elsewhere. The banner of liberal democracy is waved as a shield to excuse similar behaviour from the home team as justified and necessary to defeat the other side. [Source]


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