The J-1 Visa Process: How Do Foreign Students Get to Cape Cod?

Aug 30, 2018

Pastor Matthew Boyle (far left) with J-1 students and volunteers at a Jamaican dinner night he and his wife host for J-1s in Harwich Port.
Credit Sarah Tan / WCAI

It’s a muggy summer day at Pastor Matthew Boyle’s house in Harwich Port, and inside, the sound of Jamaican music sifts through the still air. Today is Jamaican independence day, and Boyle and volunteers are hosting a traditional Jamaican dinner for local J-1 students. 

  This is part of a three-part series called Cape Cod's Hidden Student Workforce. All of the pieces can be heard here. 

Shantae Bonny is a 20-year-old student from Jamaica who's excited to have the night off from work to celebrate, and she was going through what they’ll be eating tonight.

"This is corn soup, and this is rice and peas.  And Americans, for the last time, it’s not rice and beans, it’s rice and peas," she said with a smile.

The path that brought Bonny to Harwich Port as a J-1 student began last year in Jamaica.

"I looked up the Cape, and I saw that it was a little island, and everyone said it got really busy in the summer and that I’d love it, so I figured I’d give it a shot. And here I am," she said. This is Bonny's third time working as a J-1 student, though it's her first summer working on the Cape. In previous years, she'd worked in smaller, seasonal towns in Colorado. 

The J-1 summer work travel process typically starts at a student's university. Recruiting companies set up on campuses advertise a summer exchange program to America, and students who sign up are connected with a sponsor company in the United States, which offers them a job. Lisa Zupkova, a 19-year-old student from Russia, said she wanted the experience as a way to challenge herself.

"I live alone here for the first time. I live with my parents back home," she said. "So I was, like, 'Wow, ok, let’s see let’s see Lisa, what you can do here.'"

"The fact that the program is masquerading as a tool for diplomatic relations, but is only really functioning in practice as a labor program is emblematic of the issues with its structure and the regulations that fail to uphold the program's original mission."

She works two jobs, one at Star Market and a second at Perk’s Coffee Shop and Beer Garden, in West Harwich, bussing tables. She said many students’ motivation for taking multiple jobs is to pay for the sponsor company’s fee for the program, which is typically around two to three thousand dollars. In Zupkova's case, her parents paid. 

"Students want to come here for the second year, so they try to earn some more money for the program," she said. "As for me, I want to pay back at least half the amount of money [my parents] spent on me."

Fifty years ago when the program first started, it was intended as a way for students to travel and experience American culture on their summer break. The labor aspect was included in the program as a way for students to finance their travels through the country, but students initially were never tied to one particular employer or place.

Matthew Lee, an immigration attorney based in Hyannis said he believes the J-1 program is still true to its mission. "I still think it meets those goals, the shift has been while they’re here for those four months they’re actively sought to fill a labor need," he said. 

And he added that if students run into job or housing troubles, they can always leave.

"J-1s are free agents, they are not tied to an employer. There is a requirement that a J-1 begin their summer season tied to an employer, but they can quit. There’s no contract, there’s no agreement. They can go to another employer, and they’re completely authorized to work," he said. 

But Meredith Stewart, an attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center, said J-1 students are often new in the country, so changing jobs or apartments isn't always that easy, and many fear repercussions from their sponsor companies if they speak up about bad employers or landlord abuse. Stewart is also the lead author of a paper examining widespread J-1 student worker abuse, called "Culture Shock: The Exploitation of J-1 Cultural Exchange Workers." 

"Sponsors have a business relationship with the employers, they need the employers in order to place J-1 students when they get here. The more employers they have, the more spots they have. And the more J-1 students they can take on, and the more money they receive from recruitment fees," Stewart said. 

She added that the Department of State has put a lot of responsibility and oversight of the program into the hands of sponsor companies who often have a business interest in bringing in J-1 students.

"There’s just really no scenario where a U.S sponsor is going to hold a bad apple employer accountable in a way that yields recourse for the worker and protects them," she said. 

In the end, she thinks if the program is being used so heavily as a source of labor, it should be regulated by the Department of Labor and billed as such, and not be categorized under the Department of State as cultural exchange.

"The fact that the program is masquerading as a tool for diplomatic relations, but is only really functioning in practice as a labor program, is emblematic of the issues with its structure and the regulations that fail to uphold the program's original mission," Stewart said. 

If the program were to become a formal labor program, employers would likely have to comply with working condition regulations and wage requirements, something the J-1 program currently does not require them to do. 

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This is the second story in our series about Cape Cod's hidden student workforce, examining who J-1 students are and why so many end up working on the Cape and Islands over the summer. Tomorrow, we'll take a look at the experience of J-1 students, and what their day-to-day lives are like.