Federal policies could ban Chinese STEM students from graduate studies at the ‘U,’ institutions across the country

Wednesday, June 17, 2020 - 5:38pm

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Design by Hibah Chughtai

Chinese students in the U.S. have faced a unique set of challenges amid the pandemic, several of which exceed those of their domestic peers: from dealing with hate speech that wrongfully places blame on Chinese immigrants for the pandemic, to the threat of deportation in light of disruptions to their in-person research and academic pursuits. For Chinese graduate students in STEM fields, they face additional concerns from the federal government.

On May 29, President Donald Trump issued a presidential proclamation that restricts certain Chinese students and researchers at the postgraduate and postdoctoral levels from entry to the U.S. on student visas, effective as of June 1. The proclamation specifies a few exceptions, such as undergraduate students, permanent residents and spouses of U.S. citizens and permanent residents.

According to the proclamation, these restrictions are a response to China’s “wide-ranging and heavily resourced campaign to acquire sensitive United States technologies and intellectual properties” for use by the People’s Liberation Army. The proclamation claims that this campaign constitutes a threat to both the U.S. economy and national security.

Although affected students and institutions — including the University of Michigan, according to the International Center — await clarifications from the Department of State and Homeland Security on what may constitute an association with the PLA, some students say they already saw these targeted restrictions coming.

A graduate student at the University, who requested anonymity citing fears of retaliation from prospective employers, told The Daily she has feared the Trump administration would remove provisions allowing international students to complete postdoctoral work in the U.S, such as the Optional Practical Training authorization for F-1 students. The OPT allows international students to remain in the U.S. for a maximum of 12 months for postgraduate work related to their field of study, and is expected to receive additional restrictions from the Trump administration.

“My student visa is on (my) Hong Kong passport,” the student said. “And now … the State Department is getting rid of the distinction between Hong Kong and China. And so unless I actually have my OPT in my hand, I (have) always feared that Trump would do away (with) the provisions for an OPT before I actually get authorization.”

The student said her visa is set to expire later this year as she completes her graduate degree. These new restrictions could not only postpone her postdoctoral plans, but also the wedding she was planning to have in the U.S. later this year. Right now, she said all she can do is check the news vigilantly.

“I wake up every morning and I google ‘immigration Trump’ to see what might happen,” the student said.

Rackham student Andrea Belgrade, co-president of Graduate Rackham International, voiced her own skepticism about the purpose behind these federal policies and how widely they’ll be implemented in an interview with The Daily. 

“Maybe you went to a university, and a lab that you weren’t even a part of accepted like funding or something from a military source, and then that constitutes a tie for some people,” Belgrade said. “It seems like it’s just a very thinly veiled attempt at banning Chinese immigration, which I would guess has something to do with just anti-Chinese sentiment right now surrounding COVID-19.”

Belgrade, whose organization provides support for international students in graduate programs at the University, shared her worries about how this will compound difficulties international students face when pursuing degrees abroad.

“It was enough challenges just being an international student without … these political attacks,” Belgrade said. “You know people feel, you know, homesick … And I mean, there’s just enough stresses, being at school. And so things are just layering on top of one another.”

In addition to the Trump administration’s policy, another bill with more restrictions for Chinese graduate students in STEM fields has been introduced in the Senate. Two days before Trump released the proclamation, Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., unveiled the Secure Campus Act, which would ban Chinese nationals from receiving visas for graduate or postgraduate studies in STEM fields, with few exceptions. The bill also targets talent-recruitment programs for Chinese students, such as the Thousand Talents Program.

A press release on Cotton’s website cites the arrest of a professor and researcher at the University of Arkansas for failing to disclose his ties to Chinese government entities last month as background to the bill.

“Beijing exploits student and research visas to steal science, technology, engineering and manufacturing secrets from U.S. academic and research institutions,” Blackburn said. “We’ve fed China's innovation drought with American ingenuity and taxpayer dollars for too long; it’s time to secure the U.S. research enterprise against the CCP’s economic espionage.”

Some graduate student researchers in the U.S. take issue with the Secure Campus Act’s characterization of STEM research and international collaboration. A nationwide petition is circulating, calling on students and campus community members around the U.S. to oppose the bill, with over 3,000 signatures to date. Medical School student Alexandra Highet is one of 39 signatories from the University.

“I think this bill would set a pretty dangerous precedent for the public as well as research institutions that research should be nationalized and that research isn’t a sort of global, collaborative effort,” Highet said.

Highet and Medicine student Itai Palmon are part of the same transplant surgery research group that has been discussing a range of advocacy issues to collaborate on as a group. Highet and Palmon told The Daily they want to use their networks to raise awareness of the bill and its misrepresentations of research, which they said seems relatively low among the many concerns students face amid the pandemic.

“I've been fairly involved in academic research, the past four or five years, and one of the things that I like most about it is just how international the effort is,” Palmon said. “Seeing the language of the legislation, sort of conveying this sharing of information and broad dissemination as potentially sharing secrets in research I think does a disservice to what academic research really is all about.”

The University, with its reputation as a top public research institution in the U.S. and sizable international student population, has forged an initial response to Trump’s proclamation, as well as the Secure Campus Act. 

A June 5 open letter, signed by University President Mark Schlissel and Rackham Dean Mike Solomon, among others, vows ongoing support for the international student community on campus, as well as future recruitment efforts.

“While we take seriously threats to national security and have worked to implement practices aimed at addressing foreign government interference, we oppose arbitrary restrictions on Chinese students who have been and continue to be valuable members of the U-M community,” the letter reads. “These restrictions also limit our ability to attract top talent that contributes to our nation’s health, security and economy. We support our Chinese students, researchers and faculty and ardently believe restrictions should be limited to those who pose security risks based on credible intelligence and evidence.”

The letter also alludes to the University’s federal relations team as the arm of the institution taking the lead on responding to the bill and advocating at the federal level. Founded in 1991, the team lobbies policymakers on behalf of University interests and has an office in Washington, D.C.

Kristina Ko, a member of the federal relations office’s four-person team, focuses on the University’s research enterprise. She told The Daily the team’s response to immigration issues brought up by the presidential proclamation and Secure Campus Act is top priority.

“Supporting our international community is obviously critical to the University of Michigan,” Ko said. “Certainly, of all of the advocacy efforts right now, (it’s) definitely high on that list.”

The recent restrictions aren’t the first time the international student community at the University has experienced disruptions to their travel under Trump administration policy. Schlissel penned another statement in 2017 following Trump’s travel ban on seven Muslim-majority countries, pledging support for the international student community on campus and claiming the University would not release immigration status of its students.

Madeline Nykaza, assistant director of the University’s office in Washington, D.C., said other comparable policies, such as Trump’s rollback of DACA protections, elicited a collective response from higher education lobbyists in Washington.

“The Presidents’ Alliance (on Higher Education and Immigration) … was originally formed around the DACA issue, which is what brought everybody together,” Nyzaka said.

While the federal relations team waits for developments on the proclamation and Secure Campus Act, Belgrade suggests the University can inform domestic students of these issues as well.

“I think some of these policies, you know, they’ll put it under the guise of national security, and it’s something that if you don’t … think critically about it, you might think at first, like, ‘Oh, maybe that makes sense,’” Belgrade said. “But then once you actually look at the policy … you realize, okay, that’s just a very thinly veiled excuse to make it sound legitimate when really it’s xenophobic, anti-Chinese … So I think the University should also consider how they can educate the community about this as well.”

Daily Staff Reporter Julianna Morano can be reached at jucomora@umich.edu.