Could Saipan become the reunion spot for Chinese students trapped by visa issues? – Annenberg Media

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The Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands has strongly demanded the restoration of flights to China.

This U.S. territory, located about 4,000 miles west of Hawaii, is actually closer to East Asia than it is to the U.S. mainland. Saipan Island is the most famous tourist destination in the commonwealth. Between 2015 and 2020, Chinese tourists made up 40% of all visitors. The CNMI has submitted an application to the U.S. Department of Transportation, hoping that Chinese tourists can return to the scenic islands.

However, this initiative, aimed primarily at attracting tourists and boosting the economy, might inadvertently provide a new family reunion solution for Chinese students stranded in the U.S. due to visa issues.

The CNMI are the only U.S. territory with visa-free entry for Chinese citizens. When students cannot leave the U.S. due to visa reasons, and their families cannot obtain U.S. visas either, these exceptional Pacific islands become one of the few possible places for them to meet. Yet currently, flights between China and the Northern Mariana Islands are suspended.

Before the pandemic, China Eastern Airlines and Sichuan Airlines operated regular routes from Mainland China to Saipan, all of which were interrupted during the COVID outbreak.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, in consideration of flight rights reciprocity, Chinese and American airlines currently operate a maximum of 36 flights per week between China and the U.S., half from each side. The routes from mainland China to Saipan Island are also included in this count.

Since the current approved number of flights is only 11% of the 2019 figure, the demand from China to the U.S. mainland cannot be fully met, and Chinese airlines do not have excess flight rights to restore the Saipan route.

But once the flights are resumed, Saipan Island will become the only destination where Chinese students in the U.S. and their family members can arrive without applying for a visa.

Generally speaking, when an F-1 student visa expires, one simply needs to return home to renew it, and the typical processing time is only a week. However, the increasingly strict visa reviews by the U.S. for Chinese students have obstructed many from reuniting with their families.

The U.S. began tightening visa restrictions on Chinese students during the Trump administration, especially for students in STEM fields. The most notable ban was Proclamation 10043, signed by Donald Trump, which directly prohibited students from a list of Chinese universities from obtaining F-category study visas and  J-category scholar visas.

“The major difficulty is the administrative processing of unknown duration, commonly referred to as ‘check’,” Rebecca Liu, a Chinese graduate student in artificial intelligence at Carnegie Mellon University, told Annenberg Media. “Essentially, almost all students from STEM majors will encounter this process, which can range from a few weeks to half a year, even if you have all the necessary documents in order. All Chinese students in our major have been ‘checked,’ with the process lasting around two months for everyone. Meanwhile, most STEM students receive an F-1 visa with a validity of only one year—whereas typically, an F-1 visa lasts for five years.”

Due to the pandemic and the expiration of her visa, Liu hasn’t returned to her home country for four years. She is set to graduate with her master’s degree and start working by the end of this year, but the issue of renewing her visa has become her biggest concern. “The company requires me to provide a start date, but if I return home to renew my visa, there’s no way to guarantee the timing.”

If the visa renewal takes too long, students might even lose their eligibility to work. “If the ‘check’ takes longer, exceeding the grace period, then not only does the company’s offer become invalid, but the Optional Practical Training (OPT) eligibility is also voided. It would then be impossible to return to the U.S.,” Liu said.

Optional Practical Training (OPT) allows international students who have studied at U.S. universities to have work eligibility for 1-3 years after graduation. During the OPT period, even though the students have already graduated, they still maintain their F-1 student status. If they need to re-enter the U.S., they must hold a valid F-1 visa.

There are strict regulations on the duration of unemployment for students under OPT. Students must start working within 60 days after graduation; otherwise, their eligibility automatically expires. However, if a student is waiting outside the U.S. for visa approval, even if they have already received a job offer, this waiting time still counts towards the 60 days.

Even if students are considering employment, the prolonged waiting period of several months can severely impact their studies. After the U.S. recovered from the COVID pandemic, universities gradually stopped accepting remote classes via Zoom for students, and prolonged absences may lead to students being asked to take a leave of absence. For example, at USC, students who are more than one week late are asked to defer their attendance to the next semester. Furthermore, for students who need laboratory research, remote learning means they cannot conduct experiments in person.

Liu’s parents obtained U.S. visas, so they could visit her. Liu said, “My parents provided a lot of documents at the time, including proof of assets, proof of income, etc., to show that they had no intention of immigrating.”

However, not all students and their families are so fortunate. In 2021, the U.S. visa rejection rate for Chinese citizens for tourist visas was close to 80 percent.  Even after the easing of the pandemic and the U.S.-China visa disputes, the rejection rate still exceeded 30 percent.

On the Chinese social media platform Xiaohongshu, there have been hundreds of posts this year by Chinese students studying in the U.S. sharing their parents’ visa rejection experiences. If a student’s parents don’t have much travel experience in developed countries or substantial financial proof, obtaining a visa is not easy, some posts say.

In addition, the current waiting time for processing tourist visas at the U.S. consulates in China is astonishingly long. At the U.S. Consulate in Guangzhou, it currently takes 196 days just to get an appointment for an interview, and that’s just the beginning— a significant proportion of Chinese citizens even for tourist visas encounter “administrative processing.”

Currently, Chinese students with expired visas who wish to meet their families can travel to Canada, Mexico or an adjacent island through the Automatic Visa Revalidation Program. However, obtaining visas for these regions in China is not necessarily simpler than getting a U.S. visa. At the same time, even if the student’s status in the U.S. is still legal, meaning their I-20 and I-94 forms are still valid, the decision to allow re-entry is still made by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers, and there is uncertainty that they might not be allowed to return.

However, Saipan is a U.S. territory so this issue doesn’t exist when traveling there. The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement website indicates that students don’t need a valid visa to visit Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, or the Northern Mariana Islands unless their route passes outside of U.S. territories.

Jason Givens, a CBP Press officer, told  Annenberg Media, “Every situation is unique, but since Saipan is a U.S. commonwealth, the student would be ‘in status’ when traveling and returning to the mainland if the student never leaves U.S. territory. Although it might not be required, I recommend the student carry the expired F-1 visa and valid I-20 in case proof is requested.”

Since Oct. 3, 2019, the CNMI has tightened visa-free restrictions for Chinese nationals.  If one has a record of being refused a U.S. visa, they cannot enjoy the visa-free entry policy. This means that student families need to assess their odds and make a choice between taking the risk of applying for a U.S. visa and reuniting in Saipan.

As Givens mentioned, students cannot leave U.S. territory throughout the journey. To meet this requirement, the only available option is to fly from the U.S. mainland to Hawaii, then take UA201 from Honolulu to Guam, transfer to UA174 to Saipan and then return the same way.

A red flight path over a blue sea connects LAX and PKX, indicated as red dots on green continents.

Whether this plan can proceed mainly depends on whether the U.S. DOT approves the CNMI’s request. “The economic repercussions CNMI is enduring from the restrictions on Chinese travel go beyond transportation and strike at the heart of the CNMI’s ability to fund and provide basic services to its citizens,” wrote the CNMI Ports Authority.

After the dual blows of hurricanes and the pandemic, the finances of the CNMI, which is supported by the tourism industry, are in an extremely tight situation. The CNMI Ports Authority gave an example: earlier this year, the CNMI was forced to limit, reduce and suspend Medicaid services due to financial constraints and required cost-cutting measures.

The CNMI Ports Authority believes that since no U.S. airlines are interested in opening routes from Saipan to China, the U.S.-China flight restriction not only fails to protect American interests on the China-to-Saipan route but also causes significant economic harm thereby infringing on the interests of the CNMI residents who are U.S. citizens.

Jets spanning the Pacific connect more than just the continents on either side. When they finally land, the islands in the Pacific may soon bear witness to more heartwarming moments.

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