The J-1 Exchange Visitor Visa Program was established 50 years ago and initially was used to bring academics to the United States to conduct research or to teach. The program was intended to foster cultural exchange and eventually expanded to include au pairs, educators, medical professionals and participants in the Work and Travel USA program.
After hundreds of J-1 student workers at a Hershey’s chocolate plant in Pennsylvania walked out in protest of working conditions last fall, scrutiny of the program started to make headlines. In January, federal officials banned the Council for Education Travel USA- the company which sponsored many of the protesting students- from recruiting any more J-1 visa seekers.
Law makers have worked to quickly change the program but fish processors in Alaska rely heavily on the workforce it provides. However, local cannery workers complain that the program means that they work less. In an interview with KMXT’s Jennifer Canfield, Senator Mark Begich addresses concerns about the program and talks about a proposed H2O visa, which would essentially replace the J-1 visa program for the fishing industry.
Sen. Begich: First off, as chair of the oceans subcommittee, we deal with fisheries, NOAA, the Coast Guard and oceans in general. Obviously J-1 in general has an impact on the fishing industry; it also has an impact to a lot of other industries but for us it’s a huge impact and the administration is aggressively trying to change the rules right now. What we’ve asked them to do is to delay that process, go though a normal process, and let us work with them. We recognize there are some challenges, not caused by us, but caused by some other folks in the Lower 48 but we recognize that there should be some tweaks to it and we want to make sure that it’s a successful program through the J-1 visa for these students that come over for educational experiences and jobs. So we’re working with the State Department, Office of Management and Budget, these are the people who will make the rules or administer the process. So we said “Look, we’re not opposed to working on changes but don’t just jam it down our throats,” and I think they’re hearing that. At the same time we’re working on another angle, what we call the H2O visa. This is focused on the fishing industry and really meet their needs so that they can get the workers that they can get the workers they need. That’s going to be a longer process but we want to have two fronts here to work on rather than just hope that the administration does the right thing. I think in the end it seems like they’re going in that direction in helping us work this program in the right way but we’re not going to take a chance.
KMXT: So this H2O visa, in the future if this becomes a reality, this is going to essentially replace the J-1 visas.
Sen. Begich: Exactly. Unless people still want to come for those educational components but we recognize the dynamics of how people are working in this industry has changed. Twenty years ago a lot of U.S. students would love to work in the US fishing industry, working on the line and all that. Not as much any more. But we have a huge number of foreign workers that don’t mind. They love to come back every year, students. So we want to make sure that that is a process that is available as an employment, we don’t want to take jobs away from Americans or people who are living here on permanent visas. So, we want to make sure it’s a balance and that’s why we’re going to look at the H2O visa but in the meantime we’ve got to get the media problem under control because if we don’t the industry is going to get hurt hard and we think we’re getting some people listening and then the long term is a different kind of modified visa.
KMXT: The controversy stemming from violations at the Hershey plant has certainly given and opportunity for a lot of people, even in Kodiak, to say, “Well, you know what? I didn’t work a lot this last season and by bringing those students in I’m going to work even less.” And so I know that’s not the reason why it’s coming under fire but have you heard some of those concerns?
Sen. Begich: We have heard some of them. That’s why time is important here cause if we make a rash decision, let’s say that comment is solid out there that people say, “I didn’t get enough hours,” and then we find out that the J-1’s go away but no one then applies for the jobs. Now we’re in a big problem. So, what we’re saying is, “”Look, if there are people who want to work in this arena, want to work in this industry and they live in this community or live in Alaska, we want to make this possible”, but let’s look at the program over a longer period of time rather than just the next 30 days and then hope it all works. That would be dangerous, I think.