J-1 Visa Recipients Stuck in US during Pandemic Are Demanding Their Rights

From today’s The Nation Magazine Online:

By mid-March, Mars was starting to worry. The 27-year-old was living and working in Little Rock, Ark., where the mayor had just imposed a midnight curfew. Restaurants and shopping malls were beginning to be shuttered. On March 20, Arkansas recorded the state’s biggest one-day spike in Covid-19 cases since the outbreak began.

Mars is from the Philippines, and he came to the United States last year on a visa called the J-1. Technically, his J-1 visa is meant for “trainees”; by March, he was eight months into a year-long work placement at a well-known hotel chain where he was supposed to be receiving management training. (He and the other workers interviewed for this story asked The Nation not to publish their last names or the names of their workplaces for fear of retaliation.) To get that position, which paid $11 an hour, Mars had to pay $10,000—plus a $7,000 bond—to a recruiting agency in the Philippines, which then arranged the placement through the State Department’s J-1 Visa Exchange Visitor Program. He arrived in Little Rock in debt. 

Mars had been keeping tabs on the hotel’s occupancy rate, noting the rising number of cancellations. When he raised concerns to the HR department on March 19, they assured him that the hotel staff would weather the crisis as a team. Three days later, HR handed him a termination letter.

I didn’t know what to do,” Mars told me“I felt betrayed.”

Mars became one of thousands of J-1 visa program participants—many of them from the Philippines—who have been effectively stranded in the United States after losing their positions because of Covid-19. They may be unable or unwilling to return home. Many paid thousands of dollars in fees to get here, and some worked only a few days or weeks before being laid off. The stakes are especially high for Filipino recipients; remittances sent home by overseas Filipinos keep an estimated 10 million Filipino families afloat. J-1 workers also face a hurdle that other overseas Filipino workers, or OFWs, do not: Neither the US nor the Philippine government considers them workers.

The J-1 is officially a cultural exchange visa, admitting 300,000 people into the United States each year. Despite little employer accountability and no Labor Department oversight, J-1 visa recipients have increasingly been used to fill US employers’ labor needs in hospitality, teaching, and other fields.  The Philippine government, similarly to the US State Department, classifies J-1 participants as study abroad students, rather than overseas workers. Yet US government oversight agencies, labor advocacy nonprofits, and grassroots organizations argue that the visa program functions as an unregulated pipeline for temporary migrant labor and props up US industries like hospitality and tourism. At its worst, the program creates the conditions for human trafficking.  

Read the complete article here.