Politics

Report: White House Considered Suspending Student Visas For Chinese Nationals To Fight Espionage

REUTERS/Carlos Barria

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Will Racke Immigration and Foreign Policy Reporter

The Trump administration reportedly considered, but ultimately did not go through with, suspending student visas for Chinese nationals over concerns about espionage activity in U.S. universities.

White House policy adviser Stephen Miller, the administration’s top immigration hawk, backed the ban, the Financial Times reported Tuesday. Miller floated the idea as a way to both crack down on Chinese spying in U.S. universities and punish the administration’s critics in academia, according to the FT report.

The White House ultimately decided not to pursue the idea after pushback from Terry Branstad, the U.S. ambassador to China. Branstad reportedly objected over concerns that blocking Chinese students would harm small colleges and block a source of foreign spending in the U.S. economy.

President Donald Trump has expressed suspicion of Chinese students in the U.S. as part of his broader criticism of Beijing’s trade and foreign policy. The Department of State began restricting visas in June for Chinese graduate students working in sensitive research fields to one year, reversing an Obama-era policy that permitted Chinese nationals to obtain five-year student visas.

Other top administration officials have warned the presence of hundreds of thousands of Chinese students in American colleges and universities presents a significant intelligence threat. Many U.S. academic institutions are unaware of the scope of the threat, according to FBI Director Christopher Wray. (RELATED: FBI Director: Chinese Espionage Most Significant Spy Threat Facing US)

“I think the level of naivete on the part of the academic sector about this creates its own issues,” Wray told lawmakers in February. “They’re exploiting the very open research and development environment that we have, which we all revere. But they’re taking advantage of it.”

Tighter restrictions on student visas for Chinese nationals is in keeping with the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy, which seeks to contain China’s rise as a great power competitor. The strategy, released in December 2017, calls for a review of visa procedures to “reduce economic theft by non-traditional intelligence collectors” including foreign students.

There are roughly 350,000 Chinese students studying at U.S. universities — more than a third of all foreign students in the country, according to the Institute of International Education.

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