International graduate students at Yale have two strong allies: the labor movement and the Yale administration. Fortunately, both agree that we need to solve recent visa delay problems, which hurt union members and disrupt the University’s operations. The challenge is getting each to put aside disagreements in New Haven, so both can work together in Washington, D.C.
After Sept. 11, the Department of Homeland Security created a “Watch List” of academic subjects, including most sciences, whose students go through a national security check before visa renewal. These checks often take months and months to complete. As Chinese students, each time we leave the country, we have to renew our visas and face another security check.
Currently, we cannot start this process while we are in the United States. So if we want to go home for a week or two to visit family, we risk getting stuck in China for months. If we want to go abroad to an academic conference, we risk getting stuck in China for months.
Some take the risk. When Xiaomei Jiang’s parents died suddenly, she rushed home to attend the funeral and grieve with her family. Unfortunately, when she tried to re-enter the country to defend her Ph.D. thesis and complete her degree at University of Utah, she was denied entry into the country for nine full months, as reported by The New York Times. Rong Xiang, a Yale chemical engineering graduate student, went home last year to get married. For six anxious months, he and the other members of his lab awaited his security clearance so he could return to work.
Last year, the Wall Street Journal profiled Heng Zhu, a Yale biology postdoctoral student, after he was stuck in China for 10 months. His federally funded research program fell apart while his visa renewal application languished. Every semester, after every holiday, another group of graduate students gets stuck, and another research program gets threatened.
This hurts American universities. As the Yale Daily News recently reported, this year graduate school applications from Chinese students are down by 33 percent. In Congressional testimony last year, representatives of higher education stressed, “We make money on foreign students,” adding that “it is, I think, around a $12 billion industry. The foreign student is an industry.” One member of Congress called foreign students “a moneymaker for American schools.” When international students don’t come to America, it hurts the universities’ bottom line.
There is a clear cut solution to this problem: Allow international graduate students to begin their national security checks while the students remain in the United States. Allow all the federal agencies to check and approve security status before the student leaves the country, and without the pressure that comes when advocates and allies must call on behalf of those going through the process. This would enhance national security by strengthening the process. Then, with security approval in hand, allow students to travel abroad, renew their visas at home, and return with a minimum of delay.
This is a solution endorsed by Princeton President Shirley Tilghman and the rest of the higher education community.
It’s also supported by GESO and its parent union, the Hotel Employee and Restaurant Employees union (HERE), which has been a leader in the national struggle for immigrant rights. GESO launched a national petition at www.visareform.net, and has sent people to Congress twice in the past semester to advocate this particular solution to the visa delay problem.
Just before President Levin went to China last November, over 20 graduate student organizers in GESO sent a letter asking him to take a stronger public stand on the issue. A few weeks later, President Levin authored a column in the International Herald Tribune, warning that, “If long delays in visa processing persist, we run the risk of diverting increasing numbers of Chinese and other Asian students from the United States to Europe.” The staff at Yale’s Office of International Students and Scholars has been a crucial and constantly helpful resource for international students on campus.
In our meetings in the Capitol, we were advised to bring union members and University administrators together to speak with members of Congress. In this spirit, we invite President Levin and members of his administrators to join with us in meeting Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, so we can work together to fix this national problem.