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Attorneys urge awareness, calm amid China Initiative turmoil

Feb. 23, 2022, 12:01 a.m.

Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus (ALC) attorneys shared advice on what international students should do if approached by federal agents at a faculty-only event co-hosted by the Bechtel International Center and Stanford Law School Immigrants’ Rights Clinic on Feb. 2. 

Federal agents have been increasingly targeting international students across the country in the past several years, mainly through investigations driven by anti-Chinese sentiment during the Trump administration. Just this week, however, the U.S. Justice Department announced that it is officially ending the Trump-era initiative that brought about these investigations in higher education. Despite this goal, it may take a long time for the policy changes to go into effect. Until then, Stanford students of Chinese descent may still be are still at risk of profiling.

Federal investigations into Stanford’s international students, especially those who are STEM-based graduate or postdoctoral students, are not new. Targeting across institutions and workplaces began four years ago when the Department of Justice prioritized prosecuting economic espionage and protecting trade secrets as a part of the 2018 China Initiative. 

Stanford visiting scholar Chen Song was investigated by the FBI and charged with visa fraud for allegedly lying about her employer and shielding her identity as a member of the People’s Republic of China’s military forces. Facing visa fraud, obstruction of justice, destruction of documents and false statement charges, Song abruptly had the charges against her dropped at the request of the Justice Department due to multiple case mishandlings, including failure to have her Miranda rights read and unclear questioning on her visa application.

Lisa Weissman-Ward, supervising attorney with the Stanford Law School Immigrants’ Rights Clinic who moderated the Feb. 2 discussion, said that the event was only open to faculty despite containing advice tailored to international students because Bechtel’s approach to the situation is cautiously developing. 

“Our primary goal was to provide information and advice to those individuals who are often on the front lines of hearing from the directly impacted individual,” she said. “In the future, we are hoping to engage additionally with students as well.”

“Our goal is really not to alarm or to invoke fear,” said Deborah Choi, the Equal Justice Works fellow for ALC, before beginning the presentation. “We want to empower you all with information and connect you with us and our organization for support.”

Choi added that many of these investigations arise from the fear that international students are assisting the military and economic growth of the nations in which they were raised.

“The China Initiative has led to profiling and overzealous investigations, encouraging agents and prosecutors to look for people and alleged crimes that ‘fit’,” Choi said. 

Although the historical targeting of Stanford students was not quantified, Choi emphasized that the issue is serious regardless of whether the targeting of students is a visible phenomenon.

Stanford leads opposition efforts to the China Initiative, with other institutions following after. In September 2021, a group called Winds of Freedom, consisting of 177 Stanford faculty members from over 40 departments, sent an open letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland advocating for the termination of the China Initiative. Since then, multiple institutions, including Yale, Princeton and University of California, Berkeley, have endorsed the letter. However, the investigations have continued across peer institutions.

A recent study conducted by the University of Arizona and Committee of 100, a non-profit membership organization of prominent Chinese Americans, surveyed scientists of Chinese and non-Chinese descent at different institutions and found that for about 42% of the Chinese scientists not from the U.S., FBI investigations and/or the China Initiative affected their plans to stay in the U.S.

“The government’s targeting has been overly broad and aggressive,” Choi said. “Their approach has been to cast broad suspicion on scientists, academics and students of Chinese ancestry.”

This targeting is bolstered by the deceptive tactics employed by federal agents, according to the speakers. The ALC recently represented a Stanford Ph.D. student of Chinese citizenship, who faced similar attacks and deception. Hammad Alam, program manager and staff attorney with the ALC, detailed the tactics. 

“The first tactic was an unannounced home visit by two Department of Homeland Security agents asking about the student’s research,” said Alam. After declining the agents entry into their home, the student was contacted once again, according to Alam.

“After the home visit, the agents also tried to set up a meeting at a local cafe to approach the situation informally,” Alam explained. 

During their third attempt at contacting the student, the agents turned to a more deceptive tactic. They sent the student a call-in letter stating that a meeting was required for an audit of the student’s visa. However, the questions at the meeting were instead tailored towards the student’s research, Alam said. Alam added that this method of “illegitimate summons” is a tactic used when federal agents lack sufficient evidence or probable cause to gain a warrant.

Although these investigations often prove to be fruitless, they can have long-term effects on the students involved. Some of these impacts include damages to the student’s reputation and career, financial burdens due to legal assistance and leave from work and mental and emotional trauma. 

“Our client has had to change their research area” as a result of the fear the student faced about future encounters with federal authorities, Alam said, adding that this “has impacted their whole career path even though the student did nothing wrong.”

Although it is unclear if more students have been targeted beyond the case study presented at the event, Alam and Choi emphasized that having this knowledge is valuable in order to prepare for the possibility of future investigations. The most important thing that the ALC attorneys want Stanford international students to know is that they are not obligated to meet with federal authorities at all — and in many cases, they shouldn’t. 

“Agents will use their authority to compel information from those that have no obligation to speak with them,” Choi explained. “We would caution against speaking with agents at all, particularly without counsel present.”

Despite the informative nature of the presentation, some attendees remained concerned about the prevalence of federal intimidation at Stanford. 

“How concerned should we be about our students?” an anonymous attendee asked in the chat of the virtual event. “I hope this is an ongoing conversation.”

The Bechtel Center hopes its continued outreach to international students will help mitigate the problem, according to Weissman-Ward. The U.S. Justice Department’s recent declaration to end the China Initiative should lessen the worries of Chinese nationals at Stanford, but official policy measures will not be immediate.

This article has been updated to include a change in the U.S. Department of Justice’s policy following an announcement that it is ending the China Initiative.

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