J1 Visas: Whose Rights?

Open passport with speech bubble saying, "Money or Experience"This post is a slight deviation from my topics on life in Argentina. I was drafting a post on the abundance of labor unions here (coming soon) when I happened upon an interesting article in the New York Times discussing foreign students on the J-1 visa to the United States protesting their working conditions (here is the article).

First off, let me say that I am considerably ignorant of the many visas the US government issues. I once literally elicited a facepalm from Fernando when, after he’d told me he would have to go through a somewhat lengthy and expensive application process at the US embassy for a tourist-level visa (which he might not even receive), I stupidly asked, “What? You need a visa?” As a citizen it had never occurred to me what a foreigner might have to do to enter my country. That is embarrassingly ignorant.

Secondly, while I believe the kids’ strike is awesome and gutsy, I have serious issues with certain aspects of this program – primarily that the US government is giving away US jobs to foreign citizens. Isn’t this kind of like internal outsourcing? I fully support global education and cultural exchange but, without touching on actual outsourcing, a program like this seems glaringly harmful to a struggling US economy with national unemployment hovering at 9%. If I understand it correctly, the program is really designed for students (and a few others – there seem to be different categories that fall into the J-1) to gain valuable academic and business knowledge and/or partake in research, and not for US corporations to increase profits by taking advantage of an easy loophole.

J1 visas require an official “sponsoring organization” which has been designated and approved by the US State Department. Sponsors can be private or public organizations. Private, for-profit J1 Work and Travel operators have multiplied, making it difficult to sort through to find the best program. For a fee, these programs will get you a J1 visa, get you a job, provide health insurance and sometimes travel and lodging. There are many good and respected J1 visa operators, but some have provided sub-par experiences to their participants, and it pays to do your research.

internationalstudent.com J1 info page

While it is easy to want to blame the students’ egos or naiveté, I am angry at the organization arranging the jobs and at the offending corporations. Truthfully, it sounds like a fun and benign program; several hundred thousand US students go abroad each year on similar visas, though they rarely have the advantage of foreign employment offsetting their program costs (a popular spanish school here offers a non-credit language and volunteer program for about $2700 for six weeks). That doesn’t mean I can’t laugh at some of the foreign students’ issues, though.
I know, I know – it’s pretty jerkish of me. But they’re really going to complain about working the night shift or about standing on their feet for many hours? Welcome to Uhmerka, honeys. I’m sorry you couldn’t be given a comfy job in an executive’s office, but lifting boxes and working production is the reality for a lot of us. By the way, that $8.35 wage you were getting paid is higher than Pennsylvania’s minimum wage (if you think that’s bad, compare it to the national average. Also, read Michele Bachmann’s thoughts on the matter – SCARY). Does that amount pay all your program fees? Probably not. Is it livable? Nope, not really. Are you getting a first-hand account of what America really is? Yes. Do I know many American citizens that would love to have your job? Absolutely, without a doubt. I am legitimately sorry you got duped by the image of America being the land of the plentiful and that you paid thousands of dollars to come visit only to be used as cheap labor. It was not fair to you and the terms of your program nor to the American citizens in dire need of income. I don’t believe for one second, though, that your protests will make US workers happy.

I really am inspired by the kids’ gumption to walkout. I am generally pro-union and I wish that more workers felt that unionization was achievable and beneficial. The problem, however, is that nothing will change despite these students’ heartening dreams and actions. They might go home feeling proud that they stuck it to the Mighty American Capitalist, while no worker, either a new student next summer or the local citizen, is truly better off because of it. Granted, the only thing these students might lose is their visa (and the ability to return to the States for several years). A heavily pro-business model doesn’t merely frown upon unionization, it actively smites it; Reagan infamously dealt with the air traffic controller strike in 1981 by firing more than 11,000 workers. Capitalism’s mantra of “keep costs down” doesn’t really benefit workers. The magnificent United States of America is a country where workers struggle daily to make ends meet and are afraid to stage a strike for fear of losing the only job they could find.

Fun fact: one of the largest unions in Argentina is the retail sector.

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5 thoughts on “J1 Visas: Whose Rights?

  1. *Whistles*
    That’s a pretty strong opinion there Val.
    I’m surprised it hasn’t elicited a flame war by now over whats right and should be considered right.
    While I agree wholeheartedly with you I’m not too sure as to why these people are up in arms?..
    I mean, this is the state of the country we live in. Don’t like it? Go back home. There are hundreds, thousands, if not millions willing to take your place for that paltry 8.35 hrly.

    Are they even legally allowed to protest? Sure, freedom of speech and all that jazz but I’m not really sure how the first amendment works with people who are not citizens of it’s country. Are they getting special treatment or is the Govt. turning a blind eye? I don’t feel that its fair. I work long hours for what little money I get, and I feel like a fucking millionaire whenever that paycheck rolls around. I don’t see what makes it right to complain over what your blessed with. That’s right, I called it a blessing. A Job ( any JOB really ) in this recession is a down right blessing worth thanking God, Allah, Buddha or whomever you pray too, for it.

    • This is truly a tricky subject, and that’s why I titled this piece what I did: it brought up questions of “What rights do I/they have?” and “Whose right to employment?” I wanted to see how other people perceived the situation.

      I think these students have done something amazing, something that American workers are too afraid to do (precedence is not on our side, after all). I definitely think the students should protest, whether they are allowed or not. Just like American citizens should protest their own working conditions, whether allowed or not. We (Americans) have had it bashed into our heads that we are “blessed” to be employed and we forget how much better it could be. A fair job should be a right, not a blessing.

      Do you think many of these protesting kids were really poor? I know this group is not necessarily representative of the 6000 that get the visa, and only a few hundred worked at the plant where the protest occurred, but it looks like they are privileged (a Chinese International Relations student and several medical students were quoted in the NYT article). They had to pay a lot of money for their program, and I feel like they are peeved that they didn’t make enough to offset their fees. Which isn’t the point of their program! They were undeniably used as cheap labor, which is wrong for many reasons, but the idea of the program is to gain relevant knowledge and training.
      I don’t agree with giving the students jobs when we have a ridiculous unemployment rate. In a better economy I would have no qualms, but not now. Not when I’ve seen both of my parents unemployed for months, I’ve lost half my 401K, my friends suffer wage freezes, and every job opening gets 150 applicants.There are plenty of other opportunities available to these students without wasting valuable jobs. Clearly, sticking foreign medical students in a candy plant is not benefiting anyone other than the greedy corporation.

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