Foreign students in the U.S. on a J-1 Visa often have to pay several thousand dollars just to get into the country and find a job. And if they run into trouble when they're here, their only recourse is to turn to a sponsor, who often manages several hundred students at a time.
WCAI’s Kathryn Eident talked with Sarah Tan to learn more about sponsors in the J-1 program, and about a non-profit that’s interested in changing the program’s designation so that it could be better regulated.
Eident: Sarah, remind us of the numbers quickly; the Cape sees quite a few J-1 students, but this is actually a nationwide program and it's been active for decades.
Tan: In total last year, over 100,000 J-1 students came to the United States on the summer work travel visa program. Massachusetts is the state with the highest number of J-1 Summer Work Travel students in the country and the majority of those 7,000 students were working on the Cape and Islands for the summer.
Eident: One thing that you've picked up on in your reporting is that perhaps the J-1 program has crept away from its original mission as a cultural exchange. And it's not necessarily anyone's fault; businesses need workers, especially here on the Cape, where there's a well-known worker shortage, and these kids themselves want to come over here and work. But you heard from some students who were working some rather crazy hours and that can be dangerous.
Tan: Originally, it really was a true cultural exchange, where students were supposed to come here and kind of travel the country, see the sights, and use that labor aspect just as a way to finance their way through their travels. But the J-1 students that I met here--they are working two or three jobs, and many say they want to work. They're in debt from the fees they've had to pay to get here. And many are struggling to afford rent on the Cape. So, there's a lot of competing interests.
Eident: You also learned that the program doesn't necessarily have some of the protections that other worker programs might have. Like the H-2B visa, right?
Tan: Yeah, to me it basically seems like a free-for-all in a lot of ways. You have a lot of students here from abroad. Many are out of the country for the first time. Many are in debt, and they're all willing to work. And, you have businesses who need to fill those jobs for the summer season.
The J-1 program pretty much puts all responsibility and oversight of these students into the hands of their sponsor companies. Those are the companies that find those students jobs in the United States and place them.
With the H-2B program, which is a labor foreign worker program, workers have an assigned attorney--someone they can turn to for legal recourse. The J-1 program does not assign attorneys to students. And so, really, if they run into problems, most of them cannot afford legal aid, and really their only recourse is that sponsor who, of course, has a vested interest in keeping the businesses happy.
Eident: Yeah, I want to talk a little bit more about these sponsors. How does that work? Where are they located and how do they interact with the student?
Tan: Yeah, they kind of play recruiter and parent, or at least that is what the State Department says they should be doing. There are about 40 different officially designated sponsors across the U.S. and all of them can place students on the Cape, if they have connections with local businesses.
There are a number of these companies that are based in Boston. There is a company based in San Francisco that places students on the Cape, and they're a mix of for-profit and non-profit companies. I believe the closest one is based in New Bedford, but even then, that sponsor can't come over that often. And, she's managing 200 to 300 J-1s on the Cape. A lot of them are. Most of them are never going to meet every single J-1 student face-to-face, or know very directly what these J-1's working conditions are, or what their living conditions are. Sponsors really are the sole person in charge of making sure that these students are having that cultural exchange.
Eident: Is this a program that people think needs to be fixed; maybe there's some room for folks to fall through the cracks?
Tan: Yeah, definitely. I saw a wide range, in terms of students who were having a great experience, students who were having kind of a mediocre experience, and students who were having a really terrible experience.
So essentially, the SPLC, the Southern Poverty Law Center, they've been looking to change this program's designation to one that's under the Labor Department, as opposed to the State Department. Some of the protections that would come with this program being categorized under the Labor Department would be oversight over working conditions, regulations on hours, and accrued seniority. So, if a J-1 returns next year, or year after year, to the same company, they have the opportunity to move up. Right now, that doesn't exist. There's going to be a whole number of other regulations, and maybe a different route that they would have to go in order to get these kinds of student workers over here. I can't really say if local businesses are going to see a hiccup in workers if the program changes designations, does that mean that there just aren't these students coming for a year or two? I can't say.
Eident: And that's WCAI Reporter Sarah Tan and she just finished a three-part series on the student J-1 visa. If you want to hear those stories again you can check them out on our website Cape and Islands.org. Sarah Tan, thanks a lot.
Tan: Thanks so much, Katie.
This transcript was lightly edited for grammar and clarity.