Lately, I have been in touch with some of the political offices for whom I am a constituent, to ask if they can consider steps that would improve the climate for Chinese international students and scholars. Now that I reside in the critical swing state of Pennsylvania, the two US Senators who represent me are Senators Bob Casey and Pat Toomey. This past week, I called their Pitttsburgh offices multiple times and was able to contact a staff member for Senator Toomey.

What follows is a rough transcript of my conversation with the staff member. This is from memory, so there’s obviously no way that this is all correct, and it’s also a sanitized version as I probably got rid of some ‘uhms’ or mumbles that I experienced when having this conversation. However, I hope I was able to deliver the main points.

[Begin Transcript]

Me: Hello, is this the office of Senator Pat Toomey?

Staff Member: Yes it is, how may I help you?

Me: Thank you very much for taking my call. My name is Daniel, and I am a researcher at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, working in robotics. I wanted to quickly talk about two main points.

Staff Member: Sure.

Me: First, I’m hoping to talk about something called the China Initiative. This is something that President Trump started and President Biden has continued. This is causing some concerns among many of us in the scientific research community, especially among those from China or even ethnic Chinese citizens of other countries. Essentially this is trying to see if there’s hostile intentions among researchers or if there are undisclosed connections with the Chinese government. Right now it seems to be unfairly targeting Chinese researchers, or at the very least assuming that there is some form of guilt associated with them. If there’s anyway we can look at ending, or at least scaling back this initiative, that would be great. A bunch of leading top American universities have asked our Attorney General to consider this request, including I should also add, Carnegie Mellon University.

Staff Member: Yes, I understand.

Me: And so, the other thing I was hoping to bring up is the subject of visas. Many of my Chinese colleagues are on 1-year visas, whereas in the past they might have gotten 5-year visas. If there’s any way we can return to giving 5-year visas, that would be great. It makes things easier on them and I think they would appreciate it and feel more welcomed here if they had longer visas.

Staff Member: I see.

Me: To be clear, I’m not discounting the need to have security. I fully understand that there has to be some layer of security around international scholars, and I also understand the current tensions between the two governments involved. And I personally have major disagreements with some things that the government of China has been doing. However, what I’m saying is that we don’t necessarily want to assume that Chinese students feel the same way, or at least, we don’t want to treat them under a cloud of suspicion that assumes they have malicious intents, with guilt by assocation.

Staff Member: Yes, I see.

Me: And more on that point, many of the Chinese students end up staying in this country out of their own desires, some of them end up staying as professors here, which overall helps to increase research quality. Or they might stay as entrepreneurs … this helps out the local community here as well.

Staff Member: Sure, I understand your concerns. This seems reasonable, and I can pass your concerns to Senator Toomey. First, may I have your last name? I didn’t quite catch that.

Me: My last name is Seita. It’s spelled ‘S’ as in … uh, Senator, ‘e’, ‘i’, ‘t’, ‘a’.

Staff Member: Thanks, and what is your phone number and address?

Me: [I provided him with this information.]

Staff Member: And what about your email?

Me: It’s my first letter of the first name, followed by my last name, then ‘at’ andrew dot cmu dot edu. This is a CMU email but it has ‘andrew’ in it, I think because of Andrew Carnegie.

Staff Member: Oh! [Chuckle] I have a number of contacts from CMU and I was always wondering why they had emails that contained ‘andrew’ in it. Now I know why!

Me: Oh yeah, I think that’s the reason.

Staff Member: Well, thank you very much. I also know that Senator Toomey will be interested in these two items that you brought up to me, so I will be sure to pass on your concerns to him, and then he can reply to you.

Me: Thank you very much.

[End Transcript]

The staff member at Pat Toomey’s office seemed sincere in his interest in passing on this information to Senator Toomey himself, and I appreciate that. I am fairly new to the business of contacting politicians but hopefully this is how US Senators get word of what their constituents think.

Update December 24, 2021: Since my original conversation above, I’ve continued to contact Pennsylvania’s US Senators along with my US Representative. Senator Pat Toomey and Senator Bob Casey, along with Representative Mike Doyle, have forms on their website where I can submit emails to voice my concerns. Here’s the email template I used for contacting these politicians, with minor variations if needed:

Hello. My name is Daniel and I am a robotics researcher at Carnegie Mellon University. I wanted to ask two quick requests that I hope the Senator and his staff can investigate.

The first is the China Initiative, designed to protect America against Chinese espionage. I fully understand and respect the need for national security, and I am highly concerned about some aspects of the current government of China. However, this initiative is having a negative effect on the academic community in the United States, which by its very nature is highly international. What we don’t want to do is assume without direct evidence that Chinese researchers, or researchers who appear to be ethnic Chinese, or researchers who collaborate with those from China, have nefarious intentions. A bunch of leading American universities have asked Attorney General Merrick Garland to take a look at scaling back, limiting, or eliminating outright the China Initiative, which has been continued under President Biden. If you can take a look at that, that would be great. For more context, please see:

The second is about visas. If someone from the Senator’s staff can take a look at visas for Chinese international students, and particularly consider giving them 5 year visas instead of the 1 year visas that are becoming more common now. In the past, Chinese students have told me that they got 5-year visas, and a longer visa would make travel easier for them and would make them feel more welcomed to the country. We get a lot of Chinese students and other international students, and one reason why top American universities are the best in the world is because of talent that gets recruited across the world. Many of the Chinese students additionally end up staying in the United States as professors, entrepreneurs, and other highly-skilled employees, which benefits our country. If they wish to stay, I hope we can be as welcoming as possible. And if they choose to return to their home country, then the more welcoming we are, the more likely they might be to pass on positive words to their colleagues, friends, and family members.

Thank you for your consideration.

(Unfortunately, Representative Doyle’s website seems to not be functioning properly and I got a “The Requested Page Could Not Be Found” error, so I might need to call his office. However, I also got an automated email response thanking me for contacting his office … so I’m not sure if his office got my message? I will investigate.)

A few days later, Senator Casey’s office responded with an email saying that my message had been forwarded to the relevant people on his staff who handle education and immigration. Senator Casey is on the Senate committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions so he and his office may be relatively better suited to handling these types of requests. I appreciated the email response, which clearly indicated that someone had actually read my email and was able to understand the two major points.

Maybe this is a lesson for me in that submitting emails through the Senators’ websites is easier than calling them, since each time I called one of Senator Casey’s offices, I had to send automated voice messages.

Update January 29, 2022: Here’s my third update. I was motivated to write this after MIT Professor Gang Chen was cleared of all charges. Here’s his reaction in the Boston Globe. While I’m relieved that he’s in a better place than he was the past year, I still remain concerned that the China Initiative has backfired on the United States, and you can see a more in-depth explanation in this Science article regarding Gang Chen’s case. Thus, I have resumed contacting various political offices and institutions.

  • First, after informing Representative Doyle’s office that their website form was not working, I got an email from a staff member at the office, whose background I verified on LinkedIn. I sent a reply summarizing my two main points above (i.e., reforming the China Initiative and providing longer visas). I also submitted the same message again on Representative Doyle’s website, where the form now works. Interesting! Was I really the only one who noticed this website error? I wonder how much traffic his website gets. (Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District has a population of roughly 700,000.)

  • Next, I sent follow-up emails to both of my US Senators, Bob Casey and Pat Toomey, via their websites. As mentioned earlier, Bob Casey’s office responded to me with an email indicating that someone actually read and understood my message. I sent an email thanking for the correspondence, and I cited the Gang Chen case as a reason for his office to push forward on reforming the China Initiative. Pat Toomey’s office sent a reply which missed the point of my original message (this is different from the phone call above I had with a staff member), so I sent a follow-up email clarifying my original message, but also thanking his office for the correspondence. I like to indicate how much I appreciate getting responses from US Senators.

  • I also contacted Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf’s office by submitting my standard message on his website (shortened due to character limits). I’m not sure how much power Governor Wolf has over these issues since I think it’s a federal matter. Nonetheless, I figure it is important that the Governor’s office knows about these issues. Furthermore, I assume his office likely has connections with appropriate government agencies who have more relevant power. That brings me to the next point…

  • Finally, I just realized that the Department of Justice (DoJ) has a place on its website where we can submit comments. I think the DoJ has the actual authority to reform the China Initiative, so I once again submitted my message there on their website, emphasizing the China Initiative (rather than the visas) to keep the message on-point.

We shall see what happens.