Friday, Sept. 7, 12:45 p.m. — Schools Superintendent Elliott Landon has told The Darien Times that the U.S. Consulate in Beijing once again denied the Quingdao students visas for entry into the United States on Friday morning.

"It appears that this year’s visit to Darien may not occur at all," Landon said.

The interim superintendent told The Darien Times "we are very upset and hope this action does not forecast the end of this very valuable exchange program."

Wednesday, Sept. 5 — For the first time in the 16-year history of the Darien-China Youth Exchange program, visas were denied to Chinese students for this year.

“It is my understanding that the U.S. Consulate in Beijing has rejected the visa application from the Qingdao School for travel to the United States,” Darien High School Principal Ellen Dunn told The Darien Times

Dunn said the students are reapplying and the Darien High community still hopes to welcome them at the end of September.

As far as a reason, Dunn said she did not have all the details as the application is the responsibility of the Chinese school but  “it appears to be as a result of the risk that individuals or groups may stay in the country.”

In 2015, the program honored staff members Ann Armiger, Lynda Sorensen and Jean Shortliffe for their contributions to the program.

The Darien-China Youth Exchange program began in 2001 with the help of a grant from the U.S. State Department. The program is meant to engage students from Darien High School and Qingdao #58 High School of China’s Shandong Province in an educational and cultural exchange. Prior to 2007, DHS was partnered with Shanghai #3 Girls’ School.

Chinese students typically arrive in Darien at the start of the school year, staying for a week or more. In addition to experiencing life in Darien, students travel to New York City and Washington D.C., to gain a better grasp of American life. Darien’s students complete the exchange each April, staying with their host families for three weeks.

“When we first got the State Department grant, the State Department said it was ‘kitchen table diplomacy,’” Shortliffe said after receiving her award in 2015. “And that’s what it is, it’s to bring people to get together to eat, to talk and to just sit down together so they can have better understanding. And that’s the goal, and I hope you guys have lots of it in the future.”

The U.S. Consulate website says “the purpose of intended travel and other facts will determine what type of visa is required under U.S. immigration law. As a visa applicant, you will need to establish that you meet all requirements to receive the category of visa for which you are applying.”

Reasons provided for travel to the United States on a temporary basis include tourism, temporary employment, study and exchange.

An email to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing was responded to with a standard informational email on visa information.

Immigration policies have become more strictly enforced and stringent, and in some cases controversial, since President Donald J. Trump took office January 2017.

Darien High School teacher Lynda Sorensen, who has since taken over the alternative learning program Fitch Academy, said a similar situation happened over the summer when the high school was hoping to have yoga teacher from China teach.
Often when applicants are turned down it is because the “U.S. feels they might stay in the U.S. and not return,” she said.

“We’ve never had a situation like this where they felt a whole student group would stay, but I can’t imagine any other reason. These are elite schools, best schools in the country, and we have a  long-standing relationship with them,” Sorensen said.

Sorensen noted that the country is in “a different political climate now.”

“The denial of that visa is the denial of the spirit of cultural exchange and an educational opportunity for understanding at the time we need it the most,” she said.

Sorensen said she was flabbergasted by the news.

“We have a wonderful relationship with this school. It makes me very sad that any politics could be in the mix here,” Sorensen said.

The denial of these visas doesn’t just impact the Chinese students. Darien students still plan to go in the spring.

“We have a course built around this, so it does affect us enormously. We have a whole community poised to greet them in a couple of weeks,” Sorensen said.

Sorensen said program director Nick Banas has reached out to Congressman Jim Himes’ office as well for assistance.

“The Congressman has directed staff to reach out to the State Department to see what the solution is, whether that’s an appeal of the initial decision on the visa or a reapplication. That’s where we are right now,” Himes Communications Director Patrick Malone told The Darien Times.

“Our staff has excellent working relationships with the officials who make these decisions so we’re very optimistic it will all get sorted and this program, which greatly benefits the students on both the American and Chinese side, will go on,” Malone said.

Sorensen pointed out that the visa denial doesn’t mean the trip still can’t happen.

“They’ve been encouraged to re-apply and maybe with additional support from our end we can give the U.S. Consulate in China a little more reassurance as to what this program is about,” she said.

Sorensen pointed out the irony of the United States Consulate turning down a program that was initiated “by our own State Department.”

“We were one of seven schools chosen to partner with these schools in China with the original purpose of this exchange to create a greater cultural understanding,” she said.

Dunn said she would update The Darien Times on the next visa application status when it was available.