By Jiawen Zhang and Zichen Wang – Jan 5, 2024
The following is the translation of “Chinese PhD Students in the US Suddenly Deported: Enduring a Nightmare-like 50 Hours,” a news report by China Science Daily posted in its WeChat blog on January 5.
Meng Fei, a PhD student originally set to return to her university in the US, was denied entry at a US airport and rapidly repatriated. The 50 hours she spent there is utterly an unforgettable nightmare for her.
After Meng landed in Washington DC on December 19, 2023, she was immediately detained by US Customs at the airport for secondary inspection. She then spent eight hours in the so-called “little dark room” and another 12 hours in solitary confinement. During her layover in Los Angeles, she was detained for five more hours before being sent back to Beijing. These dark moments are etched clearly in her memory.
Sitting back in the sofa corner at home, Meng is in a daze. “How did I end up back here?” When she left for the US, she had just successfully renewed her F1 student visa for the coming year on November 27, 2023, not expecting to be rapidly repatriated. What is worse is that she is banned from entering the US for five years. If her appeal fails, Meng will not be able to attend her doctoral defense in 2024. The appeal takes at least six months, which is too long for her biological research to wait.
Meng Fei was shocked to find, on the train back to her hometown, six other students who had similar experiences at Dulles International Airport (IAD). All of them are females. Furthermore, she learned of two other female students who were informed at the Chinese airport during check-in that their visas were revoked and could not board their flights.
Despite thorough analysis, they couldn’t dig out the reason for their repatriation. The only certainty was that their dream of studying in the US was shattered.
The little dark room
Four hours after arriving at Washington Dulles International Airport, Meng Fei was informed that there was a problem with her visa and that she had to return to China. She became the only person repatriated from the airport that day.
Meng Fei stayed in the little dark room for eight hours. After learning she was denied entry, she was immediately told to pay $3,700 for her repatriation flight to China by herself, with no other options. By comparison, her flight to the US cost only $1,000.
The officials who interrogated Meng were two women: Epstein, with short hair and no uniform, and Pratt, with blonde hair, not tall, also with no uniform. Other detainees encountered Pratt as well.
This group of victims were interrogated about whether they received scholarships during their undergraduate studies, whether they were funded by the China Scholarship Council (CSC), or whether they engaged in any confidential research. Meng had received undergraduate scholarships from their alma mater but was not involved in CSC-funded projects or any confidential research.
When signing her statement, Meng was told it was just to confirm the interrogation’s accuracy, but she wasn’t allowed to see the content before signing. Only after signing did she learn that she would not only be repatriated rapidly but also banned for five years. She was outraged because the customs officers kept urging her to accept the decision to return to China during the interrogation, saying she could re-enter easily by reapplying for a visa. The five-year ban was not mentioned during the whole process.
With two armed officers watching, she had no choice but to comply, focusing only on how to leave that dreadful place and contact the outside world.
The nightmare didn’t end there. After an 8-hour wait in the little dark room, Meng confronted a humiliating search, followed by 12 hours in solitary confinement.
“I was told that I would be kept in a room, I don’t remember the exact room name. Maybe at that time, my ears refused to hear it, my brain to remember it,” she recalls. She was not allowed to bring her luggage, coat, shoes, sweater, or even cough medicine. The room had a cot, a sofa, children’s books and toys, a toilet without a door, and multiple surveillance cameras, but no clock. Thankfully, there was a TV showing the time.
It was a little cold in that single room, but Meng only got three sheets to sleep with. She managed to sleep for only an hour, waking up frequently, and spent two hours watching a movie to kill time. For the rest of the time, she just aimlessly pressed the remote control, unable to focus on anything, just waiting to board the flight home.
It was only when preparing to board the flight that she was informed that she would get her phone back only upon landing in Beijing. For the previous 48 hours, it was impossible for her to inform her family she was safe.
The search and 5-hour detention in Los Angeles airport seemed trivial in comparison. On the flight to Los Angeles, her main concern was how to make contact with her family and inform them of her situation. Fortunately, her iPad, which was brought with her, enabled her to inform her family of her flight number.
Upon landing in Beijing, a official of the Chinese immigration administration helped Meng charge her phone, record what she had experienced in the past few days and had her sign and fingerprint the record. She could finally message her family.
On the train home, Meng Fei got into contact with another girl through social media who had also been repatriated from DIA and denied entry in December 2023. The girl was also pursuing a PhD in the US.
Such students experiences have a WeChat group. Their experiences were strikingly similar. Wei Na, a student at Johns Hopkins University, and her roommate were detained in the little dark room on November 24, 2023. Wei was asked sensitive questions during the formal record, such as military service, connections to the Ministry of Education, and funding from the state. Despite she gave negative responses, the inspector told her, “Your F1 and B1/B2 visas are no longer valid, and you are not allowed to enter the US We will send you back to China on the earliest flight. You need a new visa to re-enter.”
Repeated inquiries with inspectors only revealed that her visa was canceled by the US Embassy in China two days before her entry. However, after returning home, she was told by the embassy that it was not the embassy but US Customs’ decision. That made her doubt the authenticity of the US customs officers’ statements, suspecting they were just inducing her to accept repatriation.
Two more sufferers joined their group. One of them was repatriated from the same airport and the other one was told the visa was revoked before boarding in China. In total, there were 11 of them.
This situation motivated Meng Fei to investigate the commonalities among the victims to find out the cause of their rapid repatriation. She created an Excel document, and so far, ten victims have filled in their details, with one more whose visa was revoked at check-in providing incomplete information.
The findings showed that all ten were graduates from prestigious universities, including Peking University, Tsinghua University, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, Huazhong University of Science and Technology, and University of Electronic Science and Technology of China, among others. Their domestic degrees spanned fields like biological sciences, preventive medicine, statistics, materials physical chemistry, communication engineering, German, and business administration. They were currently studying at US institutions such as Yale University, Johns Hopkins University, and the University of Virginia. Among them, two were first-year master’s students, three first-year PhD students, two fifth-year PhD students, one sixth-year PhD student, one postdoctoral fellow, and one female on a work visa.
Of the eight repatriated students, four had won university scholarships during their undergraduate studies, and one received a CSC scholarship; none were involved in confidential research. One was even questioned about having a Russian tourist visa. However, none of them was told the clear reason for their repatriation by the US Customs.
They couldn’t understand why receiving a scholarship for academic excellence during undergraduate studies would become an obstacle to acquiring further education in the US.
Meng Fei noted that the inspectors focused heavily on her phone, while her computer and luggage were not scrutinized carefully. However, in subsequent inquiries, they did not mention any issues or sensitive information on her phone, nor did they ask questions about their phones.
Given that all known repatriated individuals were female, they speculated that US Customs’ actions involved not only racial but also gender discrimination. Since these recent incidents all occurred within the past month and were handled by the same customs officer, they suspected that these US Customs inspectors were rushing to meet year-end repatriation quotas.
A well-known context is that on June 3, 2020, former US President Trump signed Executive Order 10043, prohibiting certain students and scholars from obtaining F/J visas in the name of national security. However, the universities and majors of these victims were not within the scope of this order, and most of them did not have obvious characteristics related to Executive Order 10043. Some indications suggest that the ban has been expanded in recent years—potentially going further.
What further distressed these students was the discovery of intentional or unintentional alterations in their records.
One student’s record inexplicably included a segment about engagement in a Chinese high-end talent program and visits to military-industrial units. Another student’s undergraduate research was on South Africa, one of the BRICS countries, but this was not mentioned in the record. Instead, there was an emphasis on Russia and China being part of the BRICS.
Where should they head?
Will this sudden turn of events make Meng Fei’s almost completed doctoral degree come to naught?
While detained at US Customs, Meng Fei pondered numerous possibilities for her future. If only she had foreseen what would happen then, she would have waited to return to China after receiving her diploma. If she had been more prepared, she could have applied to withdraw her US entry request, possibly avoiding the five-year entry ban. However, seven of the eight repatriated girls were completely unaware of this and received the five-year ban without any advance notice. The US Customs only informed the first repatriated student of the option to withdraw her entry application, not the other seven.
Is it possible to revoke this five-year entry ban? Meng sought help from her advisor, the international students’ office at her school, the graduate student union, and the Chinese Embassy in the US. However, so far, no effective headway has been made.
A professor of Chinese heritage at Yale University, deeply concerned about Meng Fei’s situation, sought assistance from many people for her. This professor himself was a victim of the Trump administration’s “China Initiative” and had ever been temporarily suspended from his job for several months. Meng is very grateful to him, as he, having “been through the rain,” also wants to “hold an umbrella” for others.
According to her original plan, Meng should now be focusing on supplementary experiments in the lab. She needs to complete some experiments, then finish and submit papers, followed by her doctoral defense.
The unforeseen event necessitates her communicating with her advisor to see if she can complete the experiments with the help of her lab colleagues and then proceed with an online defense. This is a result she can accept.
Then what next? Perhaps she will look for a postdoctoral opportunity in Europe. Her advisor is European and may be able to offer some advice and help.
The other two Yale PhD students, whose visas were revoked before boarding in China, have gradually lost hope of returning to the US during their long wait. A fifth-year PhD student has been in China for nearly half a year. Even though she has reapplied for a visa, there is no update on her visa status and the only thing to do is wait anxiously. Another first-year doctoral student reapplied for a visa but was denied, leaving her no choice but to withdraw from her program.
Meng is seeking help from lawyers, but the prospects are unclear. After all, even the lawyers cannot discern from the documents the reasons for her repatriation by US customs, making it difficult to prepare specific materials. The waiting time is unknown.
The group of victims hopes to lift the five-year ban, but no response has been made by the US Customs even after their US universities tried to contact them.
(Note: Meng Fei and Wei Na are pseudonyms used in the article.)
A group of Chinese students celebrate at a commencement ceremony in Columbia University. Photo: Xinhua/File photo.