Trump Administration Defends New Visa Limit on Chinese Students Studying Sensitive Fields

By Paul Huang
Paul Huang
Paul Huang
June 7, 2018 Updated: June 8, 2018

WASHINGTON—As part of the Trump administration’s efforts to curb Beijing’s ability to steal U.S. technology, the visas of Chinese students who come to the United States to study in certain fields will be shortened to one year.

Edward J. Ramotowski, the deputy assistant secretary for visa services in the Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs, defended the new guidelines in testimony before the Senate judiciary committee’s Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security on June 6.

“We have issued additional screening instructions to deal with certain individuals from China studying in certain fields,” Ramotowski said, in response to a question from Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). “These are screening measures; they don’t by themselves prohibit entry into the United States or restrict access to our country.”

The change will only affect those enrolling in sensitive fields, including robotics, aviation, and high-tech manufacturing. These are fields highlighted in the Chinese regime’s “Made in China 2025” economic plan and are also areas of military significance. Successful developments in these fields could help the Chinese regime gain a military advantage over the United States.

The proposed reform affects the visa validity date, not the length of time a visa holder is allowed to stay in the United States. The validity date refers to the length of time during which someone may use the visa to enter the country. In the case of affected Chinese students, it will be one year.

When someone enters the country on a visa, a U.S. immigration officer from the Department of Homeland Security determines how long that person may stay in the country. Chinese students whose visa validity date is one year may, for instance, still be allowed to stay in the country for the entire duration of their program or degree, which may be several years, as is typically the case with other international students.

But if a student with a visa validity of one year travels outside the United States after the visa expires, they would have to reapply for a visa to reenter the United States. The shorter visa length could, therefore, result in more frequent security screening during the visa application process for Chinese students who travel back to China during their studies.

The visa change has been vehemently opposed by Beijing, and several American universities and education organizations have also criticized the new policy, saying it would impose an unnecessary burden on their Chinese students.

The reaction from American educational institutions may have been spurred by misreporting from some media outlets, which incorrectly stated that the new guidelines would limit the amount of time students can stay in the United States.

The hearing held by the Senate subcommittee on June 6 was originally titled “A Thousand Talents: China’s Campaign to Infiltrate and Exploit U.S. Academia,” and later renamed to “Student Visa Integrity.”

In an opening statement, committee chair Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) cited FBI Director Christopher Wray’s previous remarks about the security risks posed by China’s use of students and scholars to obtain critical technologies. While most Chinese students are here for legitimate reasons, Beijing’s Made in China 2025 strategy and its “thousand talent” program are evidence that there could be national security risks, Cornyn said.

“There are many foreign academics and researchers currently attending U.S. institutions from nations that are strategic competitors, including Iran, Russia and the People’s Republic of China,” Joseph G. Morosco, an assistant director at the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, said in his testimony. “We are particularly concerned about China because it is among the United States’ most formidable economic competitors”

At the June 6 hearing, Ramotowski also highlighted another potential security loophole in the current visa law, one that allows foreign students who are in the United States on an F-1 visa—the most commonly issued type of student visa—to change their fields of study and program without even notifying the U.S. immigration authority.

That loophole could allow Chinese students to transfer from non-sensitive fields of study, such as literature, to fields that are tightly regulated, such as nuclear physics, Cornyn said.

Paul Huang