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She Paid Thousands for a Visa to Work in the U.S. Then She Got Laid Off. Now, She’s Trapped.

Thousands of workers in the U.S. with J-1 visas have been laid off as the coronavirus shut down the economy. They can’t afford to fly to their home countries — and can’t afford to stay.

A hotel closed because of coronavirus in Colorado Springs, Colorado on April 24. Thousands of foreign workers — admitted to the U.S. on “cultural exchange” visas but working in low-wage jobs — have been laid off because of the pandemic. (David Zalubowski/AP Photo)

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In the middle of March, L., a 23-year-old culinary school graduate from the Philippines, was scrambling eggs in her kitchen when her supervisor called.

L. sensed trouble was coming. As part of the J-1 Exchange Visitor Program overseen by the U.S. Department of State, she had a job setting up the breakfast buffet at a luxury resort in Virginia. For weeks, as COVID-19 spread across the United States, she had noticed the guest count dropping on the white board in the kitchen.

It was still a shock to be told she was being laid off. L., who spoke on the condition that she be identified by only an initial, felt the disbelief crest into panic.

L. was trapped. She was ineligible for government assistance and her visa status limits her to U.S. jobs approved by her visa sponsor, which she said went silent. L., who had a few hundred dollars to her name, could no longer afford to stay in the United States. She also didn’t have the money to fly home.

More than 5,000 foreigners with J-1 visas have been stranded in the U.S. since the pandemic struck, according to an estimate from the Alliance for International Exchange, which promotes cultural-exchange programs. ProPublica interviewed 13 of them, from India, Vietnam, China, the Philippines and Peru, and they described the same phenomenon as L.: They’re suddenly jobless as a result of the economy’s collapse, effectively unable to find new jobs. Many can’t afford to stay in the country — or to leave it.

Critics say the plight of the stranded J-1 visa holders represents an acute version of the long-standing problems associated with a State Department program that receives little oversight and amounts to a privatized guest-worker program — one in which the worker pays to obtain a job — disguised as cultural exchange.

The federal government “does not fund or administer” the J-1 program, a State Department spokesperson said. But he said the agency will “continue to offer support and assistance” by authorizing visa extensions and making sure foreigners have updated and accurate information if they choose to return home.

The State Department’s hands-off approach means there is minimal instractructure to make sure J-1 workers receive meaningful assistance, even in a global crisis, said David Seligman, director of the nonprofit law firm Towards Justice who is representing Filipino J-1 workers who say they faced labor trafficking and wage and hour law violations. “The current situation exposes their vulnerabilities as they are stranded halfway across the world,” Seligman said.

More than two months after losing her job, L. remains unemployed, passing her days in the apartment she has shared with four other J-1 visa holders. She can no longer afford to send support checks to her parents back home. She can no longer make payments on the $8,900 in debt that remains on what she borrowed to enter the J-1 program and come to the U.S. L., who used to work in a Japanese restaurant in the Philippines, preparing bowls of ramen noodles, now survives on vegetables, canned goods and packaged ramen from a food bank. “If only I could turn back time,” she said, “I would not come here knowing that this would happen.”

Fixated with American movies, L. always dreamed of coming to the United States. But that seemed like an impossible fantasy. L. made the equivalent of $150 a month in her restaurant job in the Philippine province of Cebu. She was her family’s primary breadwinner, and most of her earnings went to rent and groceries. The constant pressure to provide for her parents made her anxious. She saw a future of hard work for not enough money.

A friend told her about the J-1 program. It would give her a year of international work experience, the friend said, and an opportunity to improve her financial prospects. Living in the Philippines, which lacks work and encourages outbound migration, getting a J-1 and working in the U.S. seemed like a way to save money and gain competitive advantage. “If you have experience in other countries,” L. said, “you have advanced knowledge.” The same day, L. went to a recruitment agency to see if she qualified.

The program required an investment. She would have to pay a placement fee of $5,500. From there, the recruiter would connect her with a U.S.-based visa sponsor, who would help her find a job in the culinary department at an American hotel. She would also have to pay for all of the travel to and from the United States, plus the visa and incidental costs.

L. couldn’t afford anything close to what it would cost. So the recruiter connected her with a local lending company, which arranged a $10,000 loan. That was the equivalent of three years’ salary. She said she was assured that she would easily make back the placement fee — and more — once she got to the United States and started earning in dollars.

But once she arrived in the U.S. in June 2019, the money L. earned didn’t add up to enough. She was paid $10 an hour and usually worked around 32 hours a week. In an average month, with occasional overtime, she took home $1,200 after taxes. She paid about $320 a month for her share of the apartment rent, spent a few hundred dollars for groceries and incidentals, and the rest went toward paying off her debt and to her family back in Cebu. “Rent, debt, and I still send money home,” L. said. “It’s the reason why I wasn’t able to save money.”

The educational component of her program was also disappointing. She had visions of gaining an insider’s view of a resort’s culinary operations. Her training plan said she would learn banquet menu planning, work on four different food preparation stations in the main kitchen and learn fine-dining cooking techniques.

Instead, for the first five months, L. reported for work at 3 a.m. to take croissants and pies out of cardboard boxes for reheating for the breakfast buffet. “Mostly all of the products came from a box, so I wasn’t able to see how you do it from scratch,” she said. “I wanted the privilege of learning more.”

She found the early-morning shift wearing. L. has anemia, and she said the lack of sleep made her sick several times. She was eventually assigned to work the dinner shift, where she plated pre-made desserts for three months. Just before she was laid off, more than nine months into her internship, she spent several weeks on the midday shift to bake cupcakes and layer cakes.

The cultural events described in the training plan included invitations to staff events such as the year-end holiday party, a winter ski trip, a spring golf outing and Fourth of July festivities complete with fireworks. None of those panned out either, L. said. Instead she joined a group of J-1 workers when they piled into a rental car to see New York City and later, a whiskey distillery.

“There were so many things that I expected, like cultural exchange,” she said. “We were not able to experience that. We found ways to visit different states, but we had to spend our own money.”

The J-1 visa includes some illustrious programs. It was created in 1961 by the terms of the Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act. Even today, it is best known as the visa used by an elite exchange program — the Fulbright scholars — that has brought top-flight education to thousands of foreigners and Americans.

But there are many other programs under the same umbrella. The J-1 visa offers foreigners 14 ways to visit the U.S. for cross-cultural purposes.

The phrase “cross-cultural purposes” turns out to have a very broad definition. In the 2018 fiscal year, nearly 193,000 of the more than 340,000 people holding a J-1 visa participated in cultural exchange programs that involved some kind of low-wage job, such as working as an au pair, lifeguarding or hotel or kitchen jobs.

The increase in low-level J-1 jobs dates to the mid-1990s, according to Catherine Bowman, a visiting assistant research professor at Penn State who has studied the J-1 program. That’s when the State Department loosened regulations and allowed private-sector visa sponsors to take a more active role. That change coincided with increased interest in travel to the U.S. from people in Eastern Europe and Asia. As demand for the visa increased from both U.S. employers and foreign visitors, new J-1 categories were added and the number of visas issued each year increased.

Unlike the Department of Labor, which oversees various guest-worker programs, the Department of State does not require employers of J-1 visitors to pay for worker housing or travel. The placement fee, which is central to maintaining the J-1 as a self-funding program, is also forbidden in guest-worker programs overseen by the Labor Department.

The Department of State also does not require employers who take on J-1 workers to conduct a market analysis to show that U.S. workers are unavailable for the positions they are seeking to fill. Nor does the agency require employers to pay J-1 workers the prevailing wage. These provisions have put it in the crosshairs of some policymakers who worry that the J-1 program takes jobs away from American workers.

Donald Trump, for example, vowed to eliminate the program during the 2016 presidential campaign and then considered limiting it early in his presidency with the Buy American and Hire American executive order, but he has not done either. In the wake of the economic fallout from the pandemic, the notion of restricting J-1 visas has come up again. (Trump Tower in Chicago also reportedly used J-1 workers at eateries and at the reception desk prior to Trump’s election.)

Even without a global pandemic, J-1 visitors can have a hard time finding help, said Daniel Costa of the Economic Policy Institute and co-author of a 2019 report on a J-1 summer work-and-travel program for college students.

Like L., other J-1 student workers have reported that their actual work assignments don’t match what is promised in their official training plans. Sometimes they are assigned to unskilled jobs — like the kitchen work L. was doing — that is expressly prohibited by the State Department.

The State Department relies on visa sponsors to ensure that the J-1 program regulations are followed by employers and recruiting agencies. Bowman, the visiting professor at Penn State, said that many sponsors rely on automated surveys to monitor participants’ experiences with the J-1 program. “It’s a recipe for neglect in the cases where the cultural sponsor doesn’t have a really high ethic when it comes to what they see as their obligations to the participants,” she said. “And it’s a bad formula for a crisis like this one.”

Costa said J-1 recipients often feel ignored by the sponsors, which are neither incentivized to disrupt their business relationships with U.S. host employers nor empowered by the federal government to resolve workplace concerns. “This whole structure that is set up leaves workers completely unprotected,” said Costa, who authored one of the first reports in 2011 on the use of the J-1 as a work program.

The State Department spokesperson said the agency “monitors sponsors’ programs for adherence to federal regulations, and we take very seriously any report made to us concerning the health, safety or welfare of exchange participants. We expect sponsors to manage their designated programs in a manner detailed in the federal regulations and by sound business and ethical practices.”

Ilir Zherka of the Alliance for International Exchange, which promotes and lobbies for cultural exchange programs like the J-1, said that visa sponsors are concerned about the well-being of J-1 participants and that research commissioned by the organization shows that the vast majority have a positive experience. “That’s why the programs are popular and the State Department enables them, and why there is bipartisan support,” he said.

But as early as 2000, the State Department’s inspector general found that the agency’s “lax monitoring has created an atmosphere in which program regulations can easily be ignored and/or abused.” A 2005 report by the Government Accountability Office raised similar concerns.

Accounts of labor violations in the J-1 program began surfacing widely a decade ago. First came a 2010 Associated Press exposé about participants in the J-1 summer-work-travel program who were forced to work as strippers; others earned less than $1 an hour. Some were made to live in overcrowded apartments and eat on the floor. Then there were a series of highly publicized walkouts by hundreds of J-1 summer workers at a Hershey’s factory in Palmyra, Pennsylvania, and more than a dozen J-1 students at a McDonald’s franchise in nearby Harrisburg, organized by the National Guestworker Alliance.

The State Department has since begun requiring sponsors in some programs to vet employers — though it continues to primarily rely on sponsors for quality control — and the agency prohibits work in “positions that could bring notoriety or disrepute to the Exchange Visitor Program.” The department also does a small number of on-site and compliance reviews. (It declined to provide statistics related to enforcement-related reviews.)

The extent of the exploitation of J-1 students is unknown because some may feel unable to come forward, said Robyn Magalit Rodriguez, a professor of Asian American studies at the University of California, Davis. “You stay compliant between the threat of losing one’s status and also the fact that for many J-1s, they have paid exorbitant fees to recruitment agents,” Rodriguez said. “When J-1s try to articulate concerns, they have many demands because there are so many actors involved — visa sponsors, then recruitment agencies, then the two governments that helped create the conditions for migration. Who is going to take responsibility? At the end of the day, no one is taking responsibility. They are bearing it on their own.”

Rodriguez has studied Filipino J-1 workers, which make up the largest number of college interns who come to the U.S. on J-1 visas. She said that the country’s colonial relationship with the United States, coupled with its labor export policies, has made the J-1 program a popular vehicle for Filipino migrants like L.

“For many, they have no idea that this is very much a false hope,” she said. “The investment they think they are putting toward their futures is actually feeding into a highly exploitative system.”

The 13 J-1 students ProPublica spoke with say they’re caught in a vise: Out of work, dependent on their sponsor for any work opportunities, running short of cash or facing logistical barriers to returning home during the pandemic. Humanitarian flights sponsored by their governments are expensive and have long waitlists. Commercial flights, when available, are too costly. Some countries’ borders have closed in the wake of the pandemic. (Many students insisted on anonymity, which made it impossible to discuss their accounts with their employers and sponsors.)

But remaining in the U.S. has created financial strains. Some J-1 recipients told ProPublica they are having difficulty covering the cost of rent, utilities and groceries; others are able to draw on savings or family resources.

The response from their visa sponsors has run the gamut. A group of Filipino interns in Florida said that a representative of their visa sponsor drives an hour to check in on them each week. The Alliance for International Exchange said it had been coordinating donations and repatriation efforts for J-1 students, and sponsors have chartered planes, provided travel reimbursements and helped J-1 participants find temporary housing.

Most of the J-1 recipients contacted by ProPublica, however, said their visa sponsors had urged them via email to return home but had offered little practical or financial assistance. “Some of the sponsors are essentially trying to wash their hands of these students, saying your program is over and you should go home,” said Meredith Stewart, a senior supervising attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center. “For students who paid thousands of dollars to a sponsor for the purpose of supporting them in challenging situations like this one, I think it’s immoral.”

A hospitality student from Hanoi, Vietnam said he was able to work in an Arizona resort only a month before he was laid off because of the pandemic. His visa sponsor sent him an email instructing him to leave the country within 30 days. He asked for a partial refund of the $4,500 placement fee so he could afford a plane ticket home. The sponsor didn’t respond, he said. “It is really unfair that when we do the interview with the sponsor, they said that if anything happens in the U.S., don’t hesitate to contact us,” he said. In this instance, it all worked out: The hotel re-opened in late May and gave him his job back.

L. said she has also received frequent emails from her visa sponsor (which she shared with ProPublica) with recommendations for flights home. She has written to them to ask what she should do if she doesn’t have funds to buy the ticket. She said she has not received a response.

J-1 workers have turned to GoFundMe and Facebook to make pleas for assistance. Community organizations like the National Alliance for Filipino Concerns and North American Association of Indian Students have gathered food donations and helped interns negotiate with landlords on reduced or delayed rent payments.

The J-1 participants contacted by ProPublica said they paid between $3,000 and $6,600 each in placement fees. For some, it’s a major reason they’re unable to quickly return home — and it creates a seemingly impossible calculus as they sort out when and whether to cut their losses.

Another intern from Vietnam arrived in January with $10,000 in debt to start an internship at a hotel in Missouri. He has a wife and two young children in Ho Chi Minh City, and he planned to send them as much of his earnings as he could. But after a month on the job, he was laid off. The hotel provided him and other workers with food for a couple of weeks, he said, but now he’s on his own.

He has quietly sought help from a few friends in the U.S. and Vietnam, but he hasn’t told his family about his predicament. “They cannot help me, but they feel worried about me, so I don’t want to tell them,” the intern said. “It doesn’t help. I have to resolve it for myself.”

He doesn’t have money for a plane ticket, the intern said, but he also can’t think about going home because of his debts. So he scraped bus fare together and went to live with friends in Philadelphia for a while. He checks in regularly with the hotel to see if they will give him his job back. “I decided to stay here and wait for the sun to shine tomorrow,” he said. Other J-1s have also fended for themselves, in some instances managing to make it back home.

L. finds herself in a similar situation. She had planned to start putting money aside for her return trip in the final months of her program but then she was laid off.

Instead, she’s stuck in Virginia with no income, fretting about her compounding debt. L’s landlord has taken pity on her and her roommates and has cut the rent in half. She finds herself vacillating between finding a way home — maybe by borrowing from her brother, who has his own family to support and is cash-strapped — to sticking things out in Virginia until her visa expires at the end of July. There’s always a chance, however slight, that she can get a new job to earn a few more dollars. “I’m torn between the two,” she said. “I want to go home. But if I go back, how am I going to pay?”

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