Visa delays force Chinese international students to defer acceptances

Monday, September 16, 2019 - 6:29pm

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As University of Michigan students began school two weeks ago, approximately 30 international students were unable to matriculate because of delays in their United States visa applications, according to University spokeswoman Kim Broekhuizen.

The three students interviewed in this article all requested anonymity due to fear of retaliation from the United States Department of State. Other identifying information, such as the students’ undergraduate institutions and programs of study at the University, will also not be disclosed.

The students interviewed, who are referred to as John, Sue and Bob in this article, described poor communication from the State Department and uncertainty for their futures in separate interviews with The Daily. 

The University’s International Center is aware of approximently 30 students who could not begin classes in Ann Arbor because of delays in processing and approving visas from the State Department, Broekhuizen wrote in an email to The Daily. She noted the majority of the students affected were enrolled in graduate programs at the University.

Foreign policy under the Trump administration has led to a sharp increase in visa delays and denials, according to an article published in the New York Times in August.

In an email to The Daily, a State Department spokesperson noted 74 percent of student visa applications globally were approved in the 2018 fiscal year. The spokesperson said the department’s top priority when reviewing applicants was national security, which was the cause of any increased vetting.

“While some campuses may report delays, we have also heard anecdotally that there is variation in what different campuses are experiencing,” the spokesperson wrote.

The three students interviewed all said their applications were put through administrative processing, which has been likened to an elongated security check. Students said this processing lengthened the application process and kept them from attending the University this semester.

Students interviewed also pointed to the trade war between China and the United States as a possible factor in influencing their delays as students from various areas of China. The trade war has had a noticeable impact on oil prices and imports from China, and it has left students accepted to U.S. institutions unable to begin their studies as the world’s two largest economies face off.

A confusing application process

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John came to his visa interview ready to tell his interviewer about the program he planned to attend in the University’s College of Engineering, but he was only asked about its geographical location and prior leadership experience. Three months later, after what he felt was an unusually short interview, he remains on administrative processing — or a “check,” as he and other Chinese students commonly refer to the heightened background check.

“I feel confused,” he said. “I heard about administrative processing. In China, we call it a ‘check’ because it’s a process for checking your background.”

The delay has also created difficulties for his program coordinator at the University, who he noted has been helpful throughout this process. John is specifically interested in studying in the U.S. because of its advanced technology.

John said he and other students in similar situations have attempted to contact the State Department, but have consistently been met with surface-level responses. He said he feels frustrated with the lack of communication from the U.S. government, even if it is for noble reasons.

“We send some emails to the (State Department) office, but we just receive some template,” he said. “What I want to know is why this processing is really, really long ... I can accept it if it’s related to national security, but I think that I need a reason.”

Additionally, he noted the trade war may be a reason for his delay. John said the relationship between China and America has only recently become hostile and is hopeful it can be rectified in the near future.

“If we consider the long period of relationship between China and America, I think peace is the main part of that,” he said. “The tradewar is just a fluctuation — a short period. Unfortunately, we made it and we are influenced by it.”

John is optimistic he will have a visa before the Winter 2020 semester begins. In the meantime, he is looking for jobs related to his program of study in China.

While he said he felt worried when he first received the news of the delay, John said finding other opportunities to fill what would have been his first semester of graduate school has kept his mind focused elsewhere.

“At first, (I felt) anxiety and felt nervous, but after a long time, you feel calm and prepare for other things to fill this period,” John said. “For now, we just need a strong mind to solve it and to deal with it by ourselves.”

Feeling left behind

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Sue said she underwent intense preparation before applying to the University for her master’s degree, even hiring a service to help her prepare for her visa interview. She turned in all materials necessary to apply for her visa 120 days in advance to ensure there would be no issues, she told The Daily. 

During her application interview, Sue said she was asked basic information about the program she planned to enroll at the University. After sharing her plan, the interviewer told Sue there would be a check on her visa application and she would have to wait for it to be approved before coming to the United States.

“I thought it would be fine,” Sue said. “But I didn’t realize that there would be something about the abnormal delay of the delivered check … I can’t get the education and program now.”

When Sue learned her visa application had been delayed, she contacted the Chinese embassy by email and the United States State Department by telephone. Like John, Sue said she received template responses back that were not relevant to her specific case.

Sue said the University provided comforting responses and acknowledged the issue stems from the government and not the University. 

“The responses from them did not focus on my case, they just replied to everyone with the same situation, responded with the same content,” Sue said. “I also contacted the University, but I don’t think the International Center can do something about this.”

Following her delayed visa, Sue made the decision to continue to pursue her master’s degree at a school in China while she awaits a decision from the State Department.

Sue said she longed to receive an education in the culture of U.S. classrooms. She planned to continue into a Ph.D. program in the United States after finishing her master’s at the University, but her education and career plans have now drastically changed. 

“Why I chose to (apply to Michigan) is because I disliked the environment in China, so I hope to change (my learning environment),” Sue said. “But if I can’t, I may have to stay here, although I feel unsatisfied with that.”

Sue’s situation also had a serious impact on her social interactions. She chose to delete WeChat, a popular social networking application in China, to avoid talking about her circumstances. Now, Sue feels left behind and unsure of what her future holds. She said she feels embarrassed by the delay, even though it’s out of her hands.

“I chose to lose contact with my friends,” Sue said. “I changed my WeChat social network because I just don’t want to tell them my situation. And I don’t want to always see some friends go abroad or to go to another state and go live the life that I really wanted to live. So it makes me feel very lonely. Now, I don’t want to face (my) situation.”

Unable to return

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Bob completed his bachelor’s degree at a university in China and his master’s degree at a university in the United States. He looked forward to continuing his education through a Ph.D. program at Michigan, but during his visa interview in June — three days after he returned to China from his master’s program in the U.S. — Bob learned his visa was delayed.

“I’m very frustrated,” Bob said. “I spent so much effort and put all my enthusiasm in the Ph.D. application. And after several months of waiting, I apply for the visa, but the United States doesn’t allow me to enter this state to receive my education. It’s really frustrating and disappointing.”

After learning of his delayed visa, Bob said he contacted Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Ann Arbor, who he said told him she would be unable to help because he is not an Ann Arbor resident.

Dingell’s spokeswoman, Maggie Rousseau, wrote in an email to The Daily that Dingell and her office try to help every person that calls needing assistance navigating the visa application process. 

“In recent years, it has been made very difficult by the Administration’s tightening of applications,” Rousseau wrote. “Mrs. Dingell has made it clear she will go to bat for any students having visa problems. She has spoken to the University about bringing cases to our attention that need assistance navigating the complicated process.”

Bob also contacted the University’s program coordinator and the international office at Rackham Graduate School. They were also unable to help as the visa process is handled by the Department of State.

When previously applying for his visa to earn his master’s in the United States about a year and a half ago, Bob said his application underwent a short administrative process and was approved in one month. That visa was only valid for one year, though. 

“This is part of a problem because the program we are going to receive is usually longer than one year, but the visa is only valid for one year,” Bob said. “After the visa expires, we cannot go out of the United States and can’t come back, which means that we cannot attend the international conference, we cannot go back to our country and reunite with our families. That limits our access to many resources.”

Like John and Sue, Bob remains optimistic his visa will be approved before the beginning of the Winter 2020 semester. He said he has been in contact with the professor that he would be doing research with at the University since March.

“The professor and me are very excited for the future research, and we have been on Skype meetings,” Bob said. “But because of this visa issue, we are all very disappointed and we have to wait with it for another three months to start our new research.”

If the visa situation remains the same, Bob said he may decide to continue his studies at a Chinese university. Because his family lives in China, Bob said it would be easier to visit them than if he was studying in the United States.

Bob said he’s received cookie-cutter responses from the State Department similar to those John and Sue described. He said the State Department sent a formal and unhelpful reply that explained the administrative process would take 120 days about 95 days ago.

“I think this issue is not beneficial for anyone — not for the United States, not for China, not for students, not for the University,” Bob said. “I really don’t understand (it). There are many disadvantages for us, as we delay our education and research.”

Delay impacts

In February, the State Department extended the timeline for administrative processing from 30 to 180 days. The State Department spokesperson emphasized the department’s focus on security while also acknowledging the department respects the timelines of applicants in an email to The Daily. 

“National security is our top priority when adjudicating visa applications,” the spokesperson wrote. “Every visa decision is a national security decision, and every prospective traveler to the United States undergoes extensive security screening. At the same time, we’re committed to providing the highest quality service to legitimate travelers - who constitute the overwhelming majority of our visa applicants - so they can receive swift, thorough, and clear decisions regarding their visa application.”

There has been a decline in the number of visas administered in recent years, from over 644,000 students on the F1 academic visa in 2015 to approximately 362,000 in 2018. In the last decade, the number of Chinese students studying in the U.S. has quadrupled to a high of more than 360,000. More than one million international students are currently studying in the U.S.

According to Broekhuizen, the University has not been impacted as drastically as other institutions. While the University has no control over administrative processing, she also noted affected students do have access to the University’s Student Legal Services, though a lawyer in the U.S. may not be able to help.

She recommended students impacted stay in touch with the International Center and their academic unit.

Chinese students account for approximately half of the University’s international student population. A 2018 report from the International Center found international students accounted for 14.9 percent of the student body that year.

In a tweet posted June 27, University President Mark Schlissel shared a letter from the president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology titled “Letter to the MIT community: Immigration is a kind of oxygen.” Schlissel wrote in the tweet that while he is “concerned about national security, our international students, faculty and staff contribute immeasurably to the success of @umich and we offer them our friendship and support.”

Three weeks ago, Harvard University’s student newspaper, The Crimson, reported an incoming freshman had his visa revoked after arriving in Boston and was then deported. Following the initial article, the student’s story was featured in national news and he was permitted to enter the U.S. and begin schooling.However, the three students interviewed by The Daily have not found similar resolutions. 

LSA junior Jiaheng He, co-president of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association, said he was aware of multiple students who were unable to begin classes this semester because of visa delays. He, an international student himself, said the delays hurt the University’s status as a leading global institution.

“At Michigan, we are so proud of ourselves as the ‘Leaders and Best’ because we are able to attract so many scholars and students from all around the world to gather together and share their opinions,” he said. “But with the visa issue, there’s additional difficulty for us to get to the schools — not just for Chinese students, but for all the international students and scholars. It’s actually discouraged students from all around the world from coming to Michigan and share their opinions, so it’s not helpful for our diversity.”