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Once we were model immigrants; now we are a detriment to U.S. interests

Chinese international students have become the casualty in the two countries’ crossfire over the trade war, the pandemic, and Hong Kong. 

On May 29 President Trump proclaimed that certain Chinese students and researchers seeking to enter the U.S. would be restricted because they would be “detrimental to the interests of the United States.” He also called on the State Department to consider revoking visas of those who are already here. We, Chinese international students, became the casualty in the two countries’ crossfire over the trade war, the pandemic, and Hong Kong. 

Lei Zhang
Lei Zhang
Most flights between the two countries have been canceled because of the pandemic and the worsened U.S.-China relations. On June 4, China sent a charter flight to take some of its students back. The date — June 4 — may be a coincidence, but for sure an irony, for its mention easily gets under the government’s skin. On June 4, 1989, the authority brutally ended the prodemocracy protests in Beijing. The crackdown provoked sanctions from the U.S., one of which was to open its immigration gate to the Chinese students who were studying in the U.S. The Chinese Student Protection Act (CSPA) of 1992 offered U.S. green cards to more than 54,000 Chinese nationals who entered the U.S. before April 11, 1990. Despite the law’s humanitarian façade, the lawmakers were into these students’ economic value. Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Washington, the sponsor of the CSPA, argued in Congress that Chinese students “are exactly the kind of people we would like to have as Americans.” Emphasizing their contribution, Gorton later recalled, “China’s loss was our gain — all those brilliant Ph.D.s, physicists, physicians, engineers and economists who decided to stay here.” 

Three decades ago, we were model immigrants. Now we are a detriment to U.S. interests. And the line between the former and the latter is rather thin. 

While the new restriction specifically targets Chinese nationals who are involved in China’s “military-civil fusion strategy” and will affect a “tiny percentage” of about 360,000 Chinese international students, downplaying its implication is wrongheaded. China’s “military-civil fusion strategy” is a case of what the U.S. has been practicing for decades: the fusion of military, industry, and universities, or the “military-industrial complex” against which President Eisenhower once cautioned. It would be hard for the State Department to pinpoint those who have direct ties with the Chinese military. At its best, some Chinese students would have to wait for a longer time for security clearance, and at its worst, their visa application or entry would be denied. On Chinese social media, I learned that at least one student already felt the sweeping repercussion as he was questioned in a separate room when re-entering the country last week because he had graduated from a Chinese university on the U.S. sanction list.  

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The implication also goes beyond the restriction of entry. The notorious 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act barred the entry of Chinese laborers but exempted students, teachers, merchants, and diplomats. Yet the law established a racial hierarchy with the Chinese as the most excludable kind and initiated a gate-keeping mentality for the nation of immigrants. The 2017 Muslim travel ban, the 2018 Central American migration ban, and the 2020 Chinese student restriction share the same legal base in the section 212 (f) of the Immigration and Nationality Act. The statute gives the president the power to suspend the entry of any aliens by deeming them detrimental to U.S. interests. “President Trump has been more single-minded than his predecessors in suggesting that many immigrants pose a national security threat,” a recent report by the Migration Policy Institute showed. 

Increasingly, we have become associated with national security threats. To protect America from Chinese espionage, Sen. Tom Cotton and other lawmakers recently unveiled the “Secure Campus Act” that would bar all Chinese STEM students from receiving visas. But most of the Chinese STEM students that I know would like to stay in the U.S. In fact, due to the immigration system’s preference for skilled workers, some of them chose STEM majors because it would be easier to secure a job, an H-1B visa, and a pathway of immigration. My former roommate with a Ph.D. in electronic engineering works for Google. A friend finishing up the doctoral program of mechanical engineering at the U has received a job offer from 3M. Some Chinese postdocs have gained their lawful permanent residency. Amid the pandemic, whereas some undergrads that I taught this past semester rushed back, none of the Chinese doctoral students in STEM that I know returned home. Their labs were closed, but their research continued. 

On June 1, as I was immersed in the fury at the anti-black racism and police brutality, President Trump’s suspension of certain Chinese students’ entry became effective. On my I-20 form issued by the Department of Homeland Security to international students, my program at the U is listed as “American Civilization.” But America was never civilized; it was built on the looting of indigenous people, slavery, exploitation of Latinx, and exclusion of Asians. Several friends checked in with me that day. I told them I was in deep fear. I fear that this country in which I have devoted so many years studying may relive some of its most ugly past. 

Lei Zhang is a doctoral candidate of American studies at the University of Minnesota.


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