Reversing yet another policy of the previous administration, the U.S. Department of State today began applying tougher restrictions on some Chinese graduate students. The new policy shortens from 5 years to 1 year the duration of visas for those planning to study aviation, robotics, and advanced manufacturing. Although the ostensible reason for the change is to improve national security, U.S. university officials see it as the latest attack on graduate education and the free flow of scientific knowledge.
The revised visa policy was initially reported last month by various media outlets and confirmed last week by a senior departmental official during a hearing on student visas by a Senate panel on border security and immigration. The title of the hearing paints the dilemma in stark terms: “Student Visa Integrity: Protecting Educational Opportunity and National Security.”
The new rule will make it harder for the affected Chinese students to attend international conferences and to work collaboratively with scientists abroad, U.S. higher education officials say. It may also curtail periodic visits back home. When added to other policies by the current administration that affect non-U.S. citizens, academic officials say, the visa change gives these talented foreign students one more reason to pursue advanced degrees in countries with lower barriers to entry. “For decades, doing their graduate work in the U.S. was a no-brainer” for the best Chinese students, says Wojtek Chodzko-Zajko, graduate dean at the University of Illinois in Champaign. “But now, they have to decide if they really want to come here.”
“Uncertainties and confusion”
Reconciling U.S. national security with global science has always been a challenge. And the relationship became more strained after the 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States prompted increased vetting of all visitors to the country. In 2004, U.S. universities and scientific organizations began to express concern to officials serving under then-President George W. Bush about the “unintended consequences … of new procedures and policies [that] have made the visa issuance process inefficient, lengthy, and opaque.” They kept up the pressure and after former President Barack Obama took office, the State Department addressed one of their concerns. Consular officers were given authority to grant 5-year visas to Chinese students, up from the 1-year limit that had long existed.
But President Donald Trump has moved in the other direction since taking office, with calls for “extreme vetting” of immigrants, student and work visa applicants, and even tourists. For example, his administration has proposed analyzing the social media activity of millions of visa applicants going back 5 years. Higher education organizations have questioned the policy, saying there’s no evidence that such increased scrutiny would make the country any safer. They have also complained about the “uncertainties and confusion” surrounding the proposal, noting that the departments of State and Homeland Security disagree on which groups would be affected and whether their social media would continue to be monitored during their stay.
Any additional roadblocks for foreign graduate students are potentially worrisome for U.S. graduate programs in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields, which have become increasingly dependent on a steady flow of international students. And China provides nearly one-third of those students after a decade of steady growth (see graph, below).
But some U.S. policymakers believe that influx of talent may also pose additional risks to the country. The Chinese government’s aggressive efforts to acquire foreign technologies by any means have triggered a fierce political debate over whether universities and their faculty members are doing enough to help safeguard U.S. military secrets and intellectual property.
Senator John Cornyn (R–TX), who chaired the 6 June hearing, doesn’t think so. He told the story of a university president who confessed to him that his institution had been “infiltrated” by foreign “scientists” working there who were subsequently arrested as they tried to leave the country. Cornyn didn’t specify their nationalities, nor the charges. But after the hearing, Cornyn said he’s worried many university leaders “don’t prioritize national security concerns” and that scientists are typically “focused on attracting good students and just doing their research.”
Anticipating criticism from Democrats that the new visa policy unfairly singles out Chinese students, Cornyn asserted at the hearing that not only does China supply by far the most students (see chart, below) but also that its policies warrant extra attention. “The second largest source is India, but clearly, it does not have an authoritarian government and it is an open society,” he says. In contrast, the Communist Party calls the shots in China, Cornyn added, and the government “makes no distinction between the public and private sector.”
The State Department’s witness, Edward Ramotowski, did not mention the new rules in his opening statement. But the panel’s top Democrat, Illinois Senator Richard Durbin, asked him to confirm the rumors that, as of 11 June, “Chinese graduate students would be limited to 1-year visas if they’re studying in certain fields such as robotics, aviation, and high-tech manufacturing.”
“Senator, we have issued some additional screening instructions to U.S. embassies and consulates to deal with certain individuals from China studying in certain sensitive fields,” Ramotowski answered. “It would not be appropriate to discuss the details of those internal instructions in an open hearing, but what I can tell you is that these are screening measures. They don’t in and of themselves prohibit the entry of anyone into the United States or restrict access to our country.”
Ramatowski, who oversees visa services for the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs in Washington, D.C., did provide the panel with some insight into the department’s rationale for the shorter visas. He said “undergraduates present a lesser risk than graduate students or postdocs,” implicitly providing the reason why the new policy applies only to those seeking advanced degrees. The State Department, he added, is already tracking graduate students at research universities who change their majors or chose a new research area after starting their training.
At the movies
After leaving the hearing, Ramotowski declined to answer questions from ScienceInsider about how the new policy would be implemented. But experts on U.S visa policy used their knowledge to make some educated guesses about its impact on Chinese students.
One expert likened the key visa issue to needing a ticket stub to re-enter a movie theater after going out for refreshments or a bathroom break. For foreign students, the new rules mean their “ticket” is now valid for 1 year, rather than 5 years. They can stay for the duration of their training, assuming they don’t do anything to break the terms of their visa. But if they leave the “theater,” they won’t be readmitted if more than 1 year has elapsed since they arrived. Instead, they must go back home—or to a closer U.S. neighbor such as Canada or Mexico—and apply for a visa renewal. The process could take weeks or months.
The implications for graduate training are what troubles Chodzko-Zajko, whose university hosted 2600 Chinese graduate and professional students, along with 3300 undergraduates from China this year. “We might need to tell those studnts, if you come here, you’d better be prepared for the possibility that you won’t be going home, and you won’t be attending international conferences to present data and network,” he says. “It’s not that you have to finish your program in 1 year. But it puts them at a competitive disadvantage against students from the U.S., or the European Union, or even elsewhere in Asia.”
“Students have become much more savvy about their career prospects,” he adds. “And once the word gets around, some of them might decide it makes more sense to go somewhere else.”
Zhang Tao, a control engineer at Tsinghua University in Beijing who works in robotics and aviation, is worried that a master’s student who wants to study in the United States will be shut out. “My students are considering Japan and other countries where it might be easier to get a visa and realize their future plans,” he says.
Students and faculty aren’t the only ones affected by the change in U.S. visa policy. Parents can also be easily spooked, says one Chinese graduate student who requested anonymity.
“Most students rely on their parents for financial support when pursuing a higher degree abroad,” says the student, one of several studying robotics and aerospace engineering at Tsinghua who expressed concern about the change. “And parents who may not know much about the details of the new policy become anxious and start to question the benefits of continuing language education, overseas internships, visiting student programs, and graduate school applications.”
An easy workaround?
The unstated reason for the shorter visas is that the U.S. government can keep students with malevolent intentions on a shorter leash. But the former deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy to China, Dave Rank, doesn’t buy that argument. He is skeptical that it will improve homeland security, arguing that the consulate officers who vet visa applications are ill-equipped to ferret out potential spies.
“I’m not even sure what … you’re trying to screen for,” says Rank, a career foreign service officer who quit his post last year to protest Trump’s decision to leave the Paris climate treaty. “Is this person going to learn something and then take it back and then apply it in a sector affiliated with the Chinese security services writ large? If the goal is to detect such people ahead of time and deny them access to U.S. graduate programs,” he says, “I’m not sure you can screen for that.”
Rank is also dubious that a 1-year visa would deter any would-be Chinese spy. “Someone whose intention is to go and surreptitiously learn things that can be passed along to the Chinese security services … could just not go back until they’re done with their studies,” he says. “It’s not a hugely difficult workaround.”
Rank agrees that the U.S. government needs to take steps to reduce its vulnerability to intellectual property theft and foreign espionage. But he thinks those steps must be consistent with traditional U.S. values.
“As a guy who blew up his career over [the policies of] the Trump administration, I can’t completely dismiss what’s behind this larger issue,” he says. “China looks at technology, national security, and the free flow of scientific learning from a very different perspective than the United States has traditionally taken, where transparency and openness has been the hallmark of our scientific endeavor. To the extent that we work against those strengths, we are not going to be successful.”
With reporting by Catherine Matacic and Dennis Normile.