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.

Trump Halts New Green Cards, but Backs Off Ban for Migrant Workers

From today’s New York Times:

After pledging on Twitter to end immigration during the pandemic, President Trump moved to block new green cards but stopped short of ending all work visas.

President Trump said on Tuesday that he would order a temporary halt in issuing green cards to prevent people from immigrating to the United States, but he backed away from plans to suspend guest worker programs after business groups exploded in anger at the threat of losing access to foreign labor.

Mr. Trump, whose administration has faced intense criticism in recent months for his handling of the coronavirus crisis, abruptly sought to change the subject Tuesday night by resuming his assault on immigration, which animated his 2016 campaign and became one of the defining issues of his presidency.

He cast his decision to “suspend immigration,” which he first announced on Twitter Monday night, as a move to protect American jobs. But it comes as the United States economy sheds its work force at a record rate and when few employers are reaching out for workers at home or abroad. More than 22 million Americans have lost their jobs in the economic devastation caused by the virus and efforts to contain it.

Mr. Trump said that his order would initially be in effect for 60 days, but that he might extend it “based on economic conditions at the time.”

While numerous studies have concluded that immigration has an overall positive effect on the American work force and wages for workers, Mr. Trump ignored that research on Tuesday, insisting that American citizens who had lost their jobs in recent weeks should not have to compete with foreigners when the economy reopens.

Read the complete article here.