Valerie Pavilonis

Yuang Jiang GRD ’22, a bespectacled graduate student in electrical engineering, has only returned home once since arriving at Yale two and a half years ago.

Originally from China’s Hunan Province, Jiang avoided leaving the U.S. after his one-year student visa expired in 2017, because he was nervous about the time it would take to obtain a new one. Each application process comes with the risk of delays that could keep Jiang away from his research for weeks. Now, with new State Department restrictions that were put in place over the summer, he fears the visa application process will become even slower and more difficult.

On June 11, the State Department issued new screening instructions to U.S. embassies and consulates reviewing visa applications for Chinese graduate students in science fields. In a Senate hearing about national security that month, Edward J. Ramotowski, the deputy assistant secretary for visa services, testified that new screening measures would “limit the validity of newly issued nonimmigrant visas for some Chinese applicants studying or working in certain sensitive fields.” The State Department has not released further details about the specifics of the policy.

In 2014, the federal government had increased the maximum length of visas for Chinese graduate students from one to five years. The number of years for which a student receives a visa is up to the discretion of the consular officer reviewing their application. Over summer 2018, multiple national media outlets erroneously reported that the June change would officially reduce the maximum length of visas back to one year.

Murkiness surrounding the details of the new measures, coupled with media misinformation, has intensified anxiety among STEM grad students from China at Yale and other U.S. universities. Jiang said that his friends and coworkers from China are also nervous about the time it could take to receive another visa, and they, too, fear going home.

“The situation has been stressful, but it’s getting worse,” he said.

When reached for comment, a State Department official characterized the change as a general tightening of restrictions rather than a legal change that shortens the lengths of visas. The official pointed to President Donald Trump’s National Security Strategy, released in December 2017, which states that the U.S. will consider restrictions on “foreign STEM students from designated countries” to protect intellectual property. The official said that the maximum stay for Chinese students is still five years, adding that consular officers have always been able to limit that visa length on a case-by-case basis. State Department officials responded to requests for further clarification by sending excerpts of Ramotowski’s June Senate testimony.

When Jiang originally applied for a visa in 2016, he received a one-year F-1 visa after waiting for three weeks. After going home for the summer this year, he applied to renew his visa, which can only be done from outside the U.S. He waited a month for additional screening before the visa was granted. He speculated that the extra week of delay was due to the new visa protocol. By comparison, he said, he has a lab mate from Greece who has been able to return home multiple times because he is on a five-year visa.

The summer changes come amidst heightened tension between the United States and China. Trump has made combatting Chinese intellectual property theft a top federal priority and has increased tariffs on China in part as a response to alleged thefts.

Trump’s concern is not without reason. In a 2017 report, the Independent Commission on the Theft of American Intellectual Property concluded that China was the world’s largest source of intellectual property thefts including patents, technology, copyrights, trademarks and trade secrets. The report found that China systematically collects information, including scientific research, from abroad to further its own goals.

But the report did not suggest increasing scrutiny on visa applicants at universities as a solution. Instead, it proposed increasing the number of green cards available to international students with science degrees from American universities who have a job offer in their field in order to retain their skills in the United States.

Ann Kuhlman, executive director of Yale’s Office of International Students & Scholars, explained that international students on one-year visas can generally stay in the United States after their visas expire, as long as they are still enrolled in school, but must apply for a new visa if they leave the country and travel back to the U.S. If they are subjected to extra screening while abroad, a short trip home or to a conference abroad can keep them away from their research for weeks or even months, according to Kuhlman.

Kuhlman said the summer policy shift may have caused Chinese students and scholars to wait longer for visas this year. Scholars in particular — the term encompasses postdoctoral researchers and visiting professors — experienced more delays obtaining visas this year, she said. But she added that delays are difficult to quantify, because her office relies on students to report their visa problems.

Professor Steve Lamoreaux, who served as the director of graduate admissions for Yale’s physics department last year, said in an email to the News that the department has historically had trouble with student visas. In 2001, under George H.W. Bush ’48, Lamoreaux had a postdoctoral researcher stuck in Taiwan for months because of visa trouble.

“These problems have come and gone over the years,” he wrote. “We’re in another cycle.”

Some Chinese students starting their programs at Yale this year have yet to be impacted by the new policy because many applied for their visas in the spring, before the new policy took effect.

Zeyu Kuang GRD ’24, a first-year graduate student who is researching optics, is one such student. He applied for his visa in May and received a one-year visa after about a month. Kuang said he will not be able to go home in the near future if the wait times are longer, as he cannot be away from his research for extended stretches of time.

“I’m a physics major, and I’m also doing optics, so I need to write ‘laser’ in my profile, which is kind of a sensitive word,” he explained.

Kuang previously conducted research in the Netherlands and in Australia and said neither country had visa procedures as difficult as the ones he faced coming to the United States.

Tong Liu GRD ’23, a second-year physics doctorate student from Jilin Province, said he believes the extra screenings and delays that visa applicants could face are bad for the progression of science because Chinese students play an important role in international scientific collaborations.

In the past, Liu said, it generally took a few weeks to renew a visa. But some of his friends at different universities who went back to China over the summer had to wait more than a month for their visa renewals.

“It’s pretty tough to go to conferences, which are a pretty big deal to us, and it is bad to us personally because sometimes you really get homesick,” Liu said. “But I really can’t go home because of the visa situation.”

“Restrictions should come from academia, from whether you are good enough to come to a university,” he continued, “not whether you are Chinese or American.”

Sara Tabin | sara.tabin@yale.edu .