Chinese students at Yale continue to face challenges getting visas
Continued visa restrictions have left Chinese graduate students at Yale unable to return home without the risk of being denied entry back into the United States.
Anasthasia Shilov, Staff Illustrator
More than two years since the Trump administration instituted a restrictive visa policy against Chinese graduate students and researchers, graduate students at Yale continue to face issues obtaining or renewing their student visas to come to campus.
Proclamation 10043, the presidential proclamation declared on May 29, 2020, prohibits the entry of or issuance of visas to Chinese students enrolled in graduate-level programs in the U.S. with ties to China’s “military-civil” universities. Several graduate students enrolled at Yale have faced issues renewing their student visas, ranging from extended processing times at U.S. embassies to rejection of their applications. Some Chinese students said they have opted to stay in the U.S. for the duration of their program out of fear that they will be barred from reentering the country if they return home. These visa issues can lead to personal turmoil and harm cross-national scientific collaboration.
“I miss my family a lot and […] I’m also going to miss my best friend’s wedding back in China,” said Jianjian Guo ’25, a fourth year PhD student in the cell biology department. “But you have to put up with it, there’s no way around it — I just cannot take the risk.”
Yu Zhang ’25, a PhD student in the computer science department, is heading into his fourth year of his doctoral program while living in China. He said that he has had to conduct his research remotely ever since summer 2021.
Zhang is one of the students whose visa application was rejected because he attended a university involved in China’s “military-civil fusion strategy,” although Zhang said his undergraduate degree in computer science has no relation to or involvement with China’s military.
“When I decided to return to China, I was positive that it would be lifted, but as time goes on, I’m not that positive anymore,” Zhang said.
Zhang said he still considered himself “lucky” because he had already completed his requirement for classes and teaching assistant duties in his first year. He also said that Yale’s pandemic policies last year allowed him to work remotely more easily, including meeting with his advisor and collaborating with other students.
That also meant that over the last academic year, Zhang was able to continue receiving a stipend. Beginning this semester, however, he is no longer allowed to enroll as a full-time student due to his visa status, so he cannot receive a stipend.
“I think I’m not pessimistic and not optimistic about it, I’m feeling okay, because my advisor is super supportive and he’s trying to make exceptions for me,” Zhang said. “If I keep working on my thesis, I can still receive the PhD degree at the end, so that’s something I’m grateful for.”
Zhang said his advisor has allowed him to take on a part-time job to help cover his costs.
Still, Zhang expressed how much he missed the campus and lab environments, where he could talk with other students.
“Working at home alone, it’s hard to find some social life,” he said. Still, he has found some community in group chats with other Chinese students.
While the Biden administration announced the resumption of regular visa services in May 2021, the Trump-era proclamation is still in place.
A third year PhD student in the electrical engineering department, who requested to remain anonymous due to privacy concerns related to the Chinese government, told the News that he faced processing times that were significantly longer than usual when renewing his visa.
“Because of the pandemic, most of the U.S. consulates were closed, so a lot of students in China did not have the chance to make any appointments until 2021,” the student said. “Most Chinese students actually arrived in the U.S. one year later [than they had intended.]”
The student was living in Canada, where he completed his undergraduate degree, throughout the pandemic. He told the News that this was the reason he could apply to renew his visa in 2020, since consulates in Canada reopened within that year. He waited more than three months for the administrative processing and background checks to clear, and still heard nothing. He suspects that this was because his major was considered ‘sensitive’ and in a military-related field and was therefore affected by the proclamation.
Having checked the internet and being advised that his case may have been forgotten or backlogged, the student canceled his case and made a second appointment at a different consulate in December 2020, three months after the first appointment. Yet again, he waited five months and still heard nothing.
Ultimately, the student resorted to contacting immigration lawyers to file a Mandamus lawsuit — a request to the U.S. Federal District Court to force the government to take action on the pending visa application. About a month after the lawsuit was filed, he obtained his visa. This method, the student said, is not easily accessible, both for financial reasons and because it is not heavily publicized.
The student’s visa has since expired and he has not been able to return to China for the last two years out of fear of being barred from reentering the U.S.
“I think if this situation continues, most of us will not go back [… for] five to six years,” the student said. “I have a grandma in China who is more than 80 years old — I am afraid that if this continues, I may not have the chance to meet her again.”
Guo said that she hasn’t been able to return home since 2019, during the winter of her first year. Her initial visa was only valid for a year.
Guo said that it is hard to consider going back to China again, because once she does she will have to reapply for a visa and has heard that processing times are three months or longer. Potentially being stuck in China would force her to halt her wet lab experiments at Yale and would jeopardize the stipend she receives.
“I really miss my family and they miss me, because when the pandemic spread to the U.S., they only heard stories, news and data of how many deaths there are in the U.S.,” Guo said. “I could not tell my family [when I had COVID-19] because I know they would be super worried and feel they have nothing they can do.”
Following a policy change in 2018, the visa validity period for Chinese graduate students studying aviation, robotics or advanced manufacturing was shortened from five years to one year.
Guo initially came to Yale on a scholarship from the China Scholarship Council, a program that had collaborated with the Yale World Scholars Program since 2006. The partnership used to support around 20 students in the Biological and Biomedical Sciences annually, but after students realized that their visas would be rejected if they were receiving a CSC scholarship, the program was put on hold.
Guo expressed concerns on how the record of her scholarship, even though it has since been canceled, may affect future visa applications.
Guo, who was formerly the president of the Association of Chinese Students and Scholars at Yale, helped to organize a listening session for Chinese graduate students to share their concerns. The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences has provided an emergency fund for students who return to China and may be forced to remain there for several months.
On the visa side, however, Guo said that Yale’s hands are tied. In the first half of this year, the total number of U.S. student visas issued to Chinese students dropped by more than 50 percent, as compared to the first half of 2019.
“I would still choose to study in the U.S., because the research in my area here is the best in the world,” the anonymous student said. “But I see that students in Europe can go back [to China] maybe every year — with the cost of all of these things, I still put research as my first priority, but that is just for me.”
Guo told the News that over half of the students surveyed before the listening session expressed dissatisfaction with how Yale had handled the Trump-era China Initiative and that they said that made them less likely to recommend Yale to other students.
According to a report by the Institute of International Education, students from China are the largest source of international students studying in the U.S.