SAN FRANCISCO — Nearly a month after the Bush Administration announced that Chinese nationals with expiring visas could stay in the United States for another year, only a small number have applied for the program, and some say they will lobby Congress for a more generous offer.
Chinese students who are on temporary visas at U.S. college campuses say the Administration's offer would force them to return home at a time when danger still exists. Those who take part in the program, which allows Chinese nationals to remain in the United States until June 5, 1990, are not eligible for other visa extensions.
"The program was announced by the Bush Administration as the solution to the students' problems," said San Francisco lawyer Edward Lau, who specializes in international law and has counseled a number of Chinese students. "But it should only be used as a last resort."
"It's a Catch-22," said Yu Maochen, a graduate student at UC Berkeley. "If we apply for that, we will lose everything. We will be forced to go home."
U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service officials in Washington said few people have stepped forward to take advantage of the government's offer.
"We have not been inundated with applicants," said INS press officer Duke Austin, who, although unable to provide exact figures, said he has heard reports from regional INS offices that response to the offer has been poor.
A check with immigration offices across the nation showed San Francisco, which has the largest Chinese community in the United States, with 25 applicants. Los Angeles reported two, San Diego two, Honolulu one, Washington 15 and Philadelphia three. INS officials in New York would say only that the response there was "not overwhelming."
Immigration officials said they had not expected an early rush of applicants because the only ones who would benefit from the program are those whose visas will expire in the next year or those who are in the country illegally.
However, INS estimates place the number of people in those categories as high as 18,000, or almost 25% of the 73,000 Chinese students, scholars and others in this country, Austin said.
Many experts attribute the low response to confusion among the Chinese students over how the program works. Some students erroneously fear that signing up for the yearlong extension would mean that they forfeit their rights to apply for political asylum.
Signing up for the Administration's offer, however, does limit the students' options in extending their visas--either by staying in school or obtaining work permits--because it means they automatically lose their visa status, said Stewart Kwoh, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Asian Pacific American Legal Center.
Kwoh's organization established a hot line last week to answer visa questions of Chinese students and received more than 500 calls in four days. And to help the students further, the INS opened up a toll-free hot line Wednesday to explain the program's guidelines. The hot line received 91 calls by late Thursday afternoon, INS officials said.
"There's massive confusion about what they should do on their visa status," Kwoh said.
Kwoh, Lau and other attorneys are advising students in most cases not to apply for the one-year extension in hopes that a better offer will be forthcoming from the U.S. government.
The lawyers, along with many Chinese students, are rallying around a bill introduced in Congress last week by California Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) that would broaden the government's offer by allowing students on exchange visas to stay in this country for a longer time. Most Chinese students seeking advanced degrees here have exchange visas that require them to return home and work for two years once their schoolwork is completed.
Pelosi's bill would also allow Chinese nationals who already have applied for the program a chance to stay here past next June.
"It's a dangerous situation in China right now," Pelosi said. "And we have reason to suspect that Chinese officials are maintaining lists of Chinese students."
Chinese students from Stanford, Berkeley and colleges throughout the nation, such as Harvard and the University of Maryland, have been asking friends to lobby members of Congress to support the bill.
More than 100 students met at the Berkeley campus last week to set a course of action. They plan to launch a letter-writing campaign, and some vowed to testify at a congressional hearing for the bill set for July.
In addition, Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.) proposed legislation last week co-sponsored by 10 senators that would allow all Chinese students to apply for permanent residency status immediately, even if they are staying on an exchange visa and are supposed to return home.
"The President's proposal only pushes out the stay for Chinese students a year," said Gorton's press secretary, Sharon Kanareff. "They need longer than that under the circumstances the students face."