Visa delays a symptom of increasingly strained ties
It's been four weeks since Jack Ling submitted the required documents to the US consulate in Shanghai for visa renewal. He hasn't heard anything back.
The Chinese graduate student in materials engineering at the University of Southern California has one year left before graduation. The worst-case scenario would be to find himself stuck in limbo during the visa process, Ling said.
For now, he is not too worried because his wait time falls within the normal range of "administrative processing"-a visa case undergoing additional vetting for security reasons. Most administrative processing is resolved within 60 days, according to the US State Department.
"When I first applied for a student visa in 2016, I was given five years (duration). But since last year, I have to renew it every year, unless I remain in the United States," said Ling.
In June last year, the State Department shortened the length of visas for Chinese graduate students in fields such as aviation, robotics and advanced manufacturing, to one year from the previous five due to "espionage concerns".
Ling's major, related to chip development, is subject to the restrictions. He said he heard that a PhD candidate in the same major at his university has waited for more than a year in China, but still hasn't received a visa.
Visa status and research funding are the two top concerns for Chinese PhD students in the scientific research field in the US, said Tony, a Chinese PhD candidate in chemistry currently studying at the California Institute of Technology. He only wanted to provide his first name.
"Chinese students who study abroad already spend more money than their domestic counterparts; having visa issues will sometimes result in additional trips and extra expenses," he said.
But aside from the financial burden, the anti-Chinese rhetoric puts more pressure on Chinese students and researchers, Tony said.
The tightening net of government regulations, such as the investigation by the National Institutes of Health, the nation's largest research funder, into scholars with "foreign ties", has generally made Chinese students more concerned about their stay in the US, he said.
The US visa restrictions on foreign students in certain areas are not new. The widely reported visa delays and denials and prolonged visa checks against Chinese students reminded Wang Dequan of his own experience in 2002.
Wang, adjunct professor of the MBA Center at the China University of Political Science and Law, said he was denied a visa to return to the US for his PhD at Stanford Law School. Fortunately, he managed to continue his research in China before he was finally granted the visa two years later.
"It's unfortunate to see similar situations happening again. The impact is damaging to the US academics as well as the individuals affected. Openness and diversity are essential for a university to remain dynamic and attractive," said Wang, who was visiting Stanford University for a law conference.
Restrictions and pushback
In the past year, some senior officials of the Trump administration have portrayed Chinese studying in the US as threats to national security.
One of the most prominent is FBI Director Christopher Wray, who described US universities as being naive about the espionage threat at a Senate intelligence committee hearing in February.
He accused Chinese individuals in academia, from professors to scientists to students, of "taking advantage" of and "exploiting the very open research and development environment" in the US.
Over the past one and a half years, US universities have come under increasing pressure from the FBI and other federal agencies to confront the accusations of intellectual property theft of government-funded research.
Some US lawmakers are writing bills that would require more reporting from colleges, universities and laboratories about funds from China. The bills would also prohibit students or scholars with ties to the Chinese military from entering the US, or set new limits on access to sensitive academic research.
Early this month, US Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and Florida Representative Francis Rooney reintroduced the Stop Higher Education Espionage and Theft Act, which was first introduced in the Senate in May. It is intended to prevent what the politicians described as Chinese espionage efforts at US universities.
Ling said that when he first arrived in the US in 2016, when Barack Obama was president, the overall climate was welcoming and visa application was "convenient".
"Not only students, but also professors are impacted (by tightening restrictions)," he said. "Some of them are sponsored by Huawei and other Chinese companies. I'm afraid the political and economic tensions will expand into the academic community."
However, citing recent statements issued by prestigious universities in the US, Tony said he believes most of the US universities are dedicated to the idea of "academia knows no borders".
Yale University President Peter Salovey said in a May 23 letter to "the Yale community" that tensions in US-China relations and increased scrutiny of academic exchanges have added to a sense of unease among many international students and scholars at Yale and at universities across the country.