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Chinese Student Visas Caught in Political Crossfire, Educators Say

FILE - Students attend a meeting of a Chinese scholars association on the campus of the University of Connecticut in Storrs.

The Trump administration says the U.S. will limit Chinese students who study in high-tech fields to one-year visas starting June 11.

The State Department said that under the new policy, U.S. consular officers may limit how long visas are valid, rather than the usual practice of issuing them for the maximum five years, according to the Associated Press.

"This new policy would be bad for institutions and bad for the nation. While apparently aimed at Chinese students in certain STEM fields, this would have a chilling effect on our ability to attract international students from all countries," wrote American Council of Education President Ted Mitchell in a statement about the science, technology, engineering and math concentrations.

"We fear that applying a broad brush of suspicion to such a large group sends a message that our nation no longer welcomes talented students and scholars from across the globe," he wrote.

Of the more than 1 million international students in the United States, 30 percent are Chinese. While the past decade has seen a constant upswing in admissions of international students in American colleges and universities, the rate at which those students are coming has slowed. A combination of the cost of tuition in the U.S., increased educational opportunity in Asia, and travel restrictions to the U.S. from some countries worries educators and administrators.

"I think we are facing increased competition from universities around the world, and it is important to be a welcoming and supportive educational environment for students from all countries and cultures," said Wojtek J. Chodzko-Zajko, dean of the graduate college at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "At UIUC, we are hopeful that there will be no changes that impact visa eligibility for students from any country."

Economic boost

Mitchell cited the economic benefits that international students bring to the U.S. economy. According to the Institute of International Education, international students bring $36.9 billion and 450,000 jobs to the U.S. Chinese students alone "contributed $12.55 billion to our national economy in 2016," Mitchell wrote.

Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida tweeted in support of the limitations:

"Another great move! Imposing limits on some Chinese visas may seem harsh, but it's necessary. #China poses unprecedented threat. Student & academic visas are another weapon they use against us in their campaign to steal & cheat their way to world dominance."

The Trump administration has been engaged in trade disputes with China over tariffs, trademarks and intellectual property.

Chinese international student Boris Huang said this would dissuade global students from bringing bright ideas to the U.S.

"In the long run, it would not be beneficial for American society, say, if you eliminate a Bill Gates or a Steve Jobs and you kick them back to China," he said. "They'll create another company which will compete with Facebook or Apple.

Prefer to stay

"Recently graduating Chinese students, most of them, in my opinion, would love to stay here and work and find a job," Huang said. "But now the point is very clear that American society is not very welcoming anymore and they would love to go back to a place where there's no discrimination, where they can just use their talents."

Patrick Chovanec, adjunct professor at Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs and a former business professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing, tweeted that he understood the "vulnerabilities" in the exchange systems between China and the U.S. "But having a open economy and society has actually worked pretty well for the U.S. in the long run," he said. "I'm still willing to bet on it."

Chinese citizens seeking visas will need special clearance from multiple U.S. agencies if they work as researchers or managers for companies on a U.S. Commerce Department list of entities requiring higher scrutiny, the Associated Press reported. Those clearances are expected to take months for each visa application, the official said. The official wasn't authorized to comment publicly and requested anonymity.

The application process remains unchanged.

"These students have been critical to research that supports U.S. economic growth and fuels innovation. We are anxious to do our part to ensure that America's national and economic security is protected, while at the same time preserving the U.S. as a destination of choice for the world's best and brightest students and scholars," Mitchell wrote.

"We stand ready to work with federal officials to address security concerns regarding Chinese or any international students," said Mitchell.

Abigail Rubel of VOA Student Union and Stella Hsu of the VOA Mandarin service contributed to this report.