The state department’s rush to reform the J-1 visa program has slowed, says Senator Mark Begich. The program had been under intense scrutiny since last fall when hundreds of J-1 student workers at a Hershey’s chocolate plant in Pennsylvania walked out in protest of working conditions. Begich worked quickly to convince his colleagues that the program is essential to operating Alaska’s canneries. However, Kodiak’s Filipino-American Association is still taking a stance against the program in its current form.
Fil-Am President Mary Guilas-Hawver says too many locals are being displaced out of cannery jobs because of the J-1 visa workers.
"So that’s unfair because these people are the ones who are paying their taxes here, making Kodiak their home and send their children to school here. The problem is they’re not able to make money to live and support themselves during the summer. The worst thing yet is that they’re not able to put money in their unemployment bank to use during the winter. We had, as you know, a really bad winter and for these folks that don’t have any money to buy heat for their homes or food to feed their children, it’s double that or triple that, even."
Begich’s office is currently drafting legislation that would establish a so-called H20 visa that would essentially replace the J-1 program. The new visa would allow canneries to hire foreign workers without having to do so under the premise of cultural exchange, which is a main tenet of the J-1 program. While the details of the proposed visa are still being worked out, Begich says he has three priorities when addressing concerns about the J-1 program.
"First priority is to continue to make our fishing industry strong and healthy. Second priority is if we can hire Alaskans, US citizens, we want to make that happen and when that’s not possible we need to make sure that we have a visa program that allows access to employees to work in this industry that is critical for us."
None of that reassures Guilas-Hawver that the Senator understands how Kodiak is different from other rural cannery towns. She says the influx of J-1 visa workers is not only unnecessary because there are plenty of locals ready to work, but it’s also very hard on the community. Each summer the local homeless shelter and food bank exhausts many of their resources providing for foreign workers.
"I don’t mind the J-1 visa workers as long as they’re not in Kodiak. I understand that other communities in Alaska, the cruise ships and things like that, they need them. We can only accommodate some of them, not all of them, not 350 every summer."
Guilas-Hawver adds that the issue is something all Kodiak residents should pay attention to.
"We are advocating for the people that live here. It’s not just the Filipino community that is affected by it; it’s the whole Kodiak community. If they don’t have a job here they will go to a greener pasture. We’ve seen a lot of people leaving with their children and that affects the school. We’re losing that money that is supposed to go to the school. It’s like a domino affect."
Senator Begich says he’s working closely with the State Department to keep the J-1 program in effect until the details of his H20 visa can be worked out.