Reports of visa checks, deportations worry Chinese STEM students in US

Geopolitical tensions and growing competition in tech between the United States and China appear to be spilling over into academia despite commitments from the world’s two biggest economies to boost people-to-people exchanges.

The United States remains the top choice for Chinese students seeking to study abroad with nearly 300,000 studying in American colleges and universities during the 2022-2023 school year. But reports of some cases that students and professors are facing extra scrutiny while passing through immigration and the deportation of others are raising concerns.

For Chen Xiaojin, a doctoral student studying semiconductor materials at a university in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, it has been six years since she returned to her hometown of Beijing.

At first, it was the COVID-19 pandemic that kept her from going home. But over the past two years, she has been deterred by accounts of Chinese students majoring in science and engineering being required to reapply for their visas upon returning to China.

She also says she is worried by reports over the past six months of Chinese students being deported, even at nearby Dulles Airport.

“My current research is relatively sensitive, and my boss [adviser] is getting funds from the U.S. Department of Defense, making it even more sensitive,” she told VOA. “I am afraid that I won’t be able to return after I go back [to China].”

Chen says that if she did return to China, she would have to apply for a new visa.

FILE - Passengers make their way through the terminal at Washington Dulles International Airport in Dulles, Virginia, Nov. 22, 2023.


Chinese students report interrogations, deportations at US airports

In a report late last month, Bloomberg said it had found at least 20 Chinese students and scholars with valid visas who were deported at U.S. Customs since November and barred from reentry. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency does not release relevant data.

Immigration attorney Dan Berger represented one Chinese student who was deported late last year. He tells VOA Mandarin that the student studied biological sciences at Yale University and was about to complete her doctorate.

She visited her family in China and got a new visa but was deported by customs at Dulles Airport and barred from reentering the country for five years. Berger said he did not see anything suspicious in the transcript of the conversation between the student and the customs officer.

“We have seen what seems like a pattern over the last six months of Chinese PhD students being turned around…. more than I’ve seen in quite a while,” he said.

Matthew Brazil, a fellow at the Jamestown Foundation, said neither country seems willing to explain the situation. However, he believes that in most cases, the United States must have valid reasons for blocking visa holders from entering the country.

In some cases, the student’s background may not match what is written on the visa application. In other cases, customs agents may also find something that the State Department missed, and once they see it, they are responsible for taking action.

“I wish the Chinese side would be specific about their students who were refused entry,” he said. “The fact that both sides are mum on details and that the Chinese side is engaged with the usual angry rhetoric means that each has security concerns. And that says to me that there was good reason for the U.S. to stop these particular applicants.”

FILE - Chinese students wait outside the U.S. Embassy for their visa application interviews on May 2, 2012, in Beijing. The Chinese government has protested to the United States over the treatment of Chinese arriving to study in America.
FILE – Chinese students wait outside the U.S. Embassy for their visa application interviews on May 2, 2012, in Beijing. The Chinese government has protested to the United States over the treatment of Chinese arriving to study in America.

Brazil also sees a connection between the entry denials and export control regulations issued by the United States in October 2022 that restrict China’s ability to obtain advanced computing chips, develop and maintain supercomputers, and manufacture advanced semiconductors.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection is one of the law enforcement agencies authorized to investigate violations of export control regulations, he said.

“Beijing’s intelligence agencies are known to focus attention on PRC [People’s Republic of China] students and scientists headed abroad who study or work on dual-use technologies controlled under the Export Administration Act — compelling Chinese students and scientists to report on what they’ve learned when they return to China on holiday,” he said. “This has been true for decades.”

Bill Drexel, a fellow for the Technology and National Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, said the U.S. government did find some cases where students tried to steal strategic technology for China.

“I think it would both not be surprising that they found some really questionable or incriminating evidence for some students,” he said. “It would also not be surprising if, in their hunt for really solid evidence, they also may have made some mistakes on other students.”

Drexel adds that “it’s just kind of an unfortunate fact of the time that we live in and the tactics that the CCP uses when it comes to these measures.”

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