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.
Since Covid-19 began shutting down economies around the globe, the Philippine government has offered some assistance to stranded OFWs, such as the preexisting Assistance to Nationals fund—a billion pesos set aside to help migrant workers in distress. The government has also offered a $200 amelioration payment for overseas workers affected by the pandemic. But because neither the Philippines nor the United States categorize Filipinos on J-1 visas as workers, they are not entitled to funds from either government.
“We do the same thing as other OFWs, but we are not a part of the benefits,” Mars said. “We’re not privileged to it, even though we actually paid more [for our visas] than them.”
The J-1 visa was conceived by the State Department in 1961, as a tool of diplomacy with the stated mission to “increase mutual understanding” between the United States and other countries. In the beginning, the program primarily brought into this country scholars who would teach and conduct research during their sojourn.
Over the last two decades, the J-1 visa has transformed from a diplomacy program into a de facto labor program. Unlike most other employment-based visas, there is no cap on the number of J-1s made available each year—making it a convenient workaround for US employers looking to fill worker shortages. It also presents an opportunity to cut labor costs: Employers do not have to pay payroll taxes, which the Southern Poverty Law Center estimates saves businesses 8 percent on their total payroll expenses. The sponsor organizations that arrange work placements also do not charge employers for providing the service, making money chiefly from their cut of the fees paid by visa applicants.
I spoke with three J-1 program participants from the Philippines who reported that they were left to fend for themselves after the pandemic cut short their internships or work placements. They had paid between $4,000 and $10,000 in application fees—higher than an average year’s salary in the Philippines—often borrowing from family members or banks to do so. Local recruiters in the Philippines split those fees with privately owned sponsor organizations in the United States, which partner with employers such as the Marriott and Sheraton hotel chains to fill internships that supposedly provide “on-the-job training.”
Even before the pandemic, many J-1 recipients said they experienced problems with their programs at hotels and hotel restaurants. Sponsors had sent them detailed training plans—issued on State Department letterhead and cosigned by the future employer—to review and sign before leaving the Philippines. The agreements promise interns a proper orientation, specify that the employer will follow the training plan with “definite phases [and] specific objectives,” and guarantee that the training will be “provided by experienced and knowledgeable staff.” Many arrived in the United States with degrees in hospitality management, expecting to be trained as managers. Workers told me they spent months busing tables or mopping floors instead.
When Joy, a 25-year-old chef from the Philippine province of Negros Occidental, arrived in Dallas for an internship at a hotel in January, she said she received no formal orientation. She was told that she she’d have to find an apartment in town alongside the other newly arrived J-1 workers. Her employers had her working inconsistent hours in the hotel kitchen—often clocking in under or over the 32-to-40-hour work week stipulated in her contract—and she said they blew through the discrete phases of her 12-month training plan in about three months. The person training her was another J-1 intern, who had started working at the hotel just a few months before Joy’s arrival.
“That was the worst thing. We expected the chefs or the heads to teach us how to operate the restaurant, the kitchen,” Joy said. “Sadly, it was just the J-1.”
The J-1 workers told me that when managerial training was implemented in their programs, it was often superficial. “They showed me how to do payroll once. They also showed me how to do the schedule—once,” said Mars. “But am I really going to understand if they only show me once?” Mars said he had spent most of his time during the internship delivering room service and working as a host at the hotel restaurant.
Then Covid-19 hit. Mars and Joy both reported that their supervisors gave no advance notice before telling them that their schedules were being cut indefinitely. Their employers and sponsors urged them to return home to the Philippines, but offered no financial assistance. The workers were often cramped together in tiny apartments. Joy was living with six other J-1s.
The J-1 program does not make employers answerable to hires in any meaningful way. The contract agreement directs J-1 intern visa recipients to file any complaints about the “legitimacy” of their internship with the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, the federal agency in charge of administering the J-1 program.
J-1 recipients said that their complaints about working conditions—mainly, that their training plan was not being followed according to the contract’s terms—to sponsors and management alike were often ignored or met with threats of being sent back to the Philippines. One former intern said she called the State Department help line multiple times with concerns, but no one picked up.
In response to allegations of neglect, a State Department official said it “monitors sponsors’ programs for adherence to federal regulations, and we take very seriously any report we receive concerning the welfare of an exchange visitor.”
Migrant worker advocates, however, say that the program shields both employers and sponsors from accountability. “The State Department formally administers the program, but delegates much of its day-to-day authority to a mix of for- and nonprofit sponsors,” said Catherine Bowman, assistant professor at Penn State’s Center for Global Workers’ Rights. “There is a running criticism that this results in lax oversight and inaccuracies about the J-1s’ well-being.”
Once the Covid-19 layoffs began, the State Department published one advisory on its website to J-1 program participants: Contact your sponsors. When Joy reached out to her sponsor, she said, “They e-mailed us two options: Either go home or stay. All of us chose to stay, because we need to recover our losses.” After that, she said, her sponsor never responded to requests for further guidance.
There are 15 subcategories in the J-1 program, for professions ranging from physicians and professors to au pairs and camp counselors. Of the 37,000 J-1 interns and trainees admitted to the United States in 2019, about a third were assigned to work in the hospitality and tourism sector.
J-1-sponsoring organizations are a political force, with powerful legislative influence in Washington, D.C. This includes the Alliance for International Exchange, a lobbying group whose board of directors consists of multiple J-1 sponsoring agency executives. “The visa sponsors are labor brokers, and they’ve created this self-regulating system,” said Nap Pempeña, secretary general of Migrante USA, a nationwide alliance of Filipino worker organizations.
As the groups profiting from, administering, and regulating the J-1, these sponsors face a logistical problem when it comes to overseeing this expansive program. In 2011, hundreds of J-1 workers of varying nationalities walked off the job at a Hershey’s chocolate packing plant in Pennsylvania, decrying long hours and low wages. “There is no cultural exchange,” a Chinese undergraduate told The New York Times. “It is just work, work faster, work.”
At its worst, the J-1 visa can lead to more extreme instances of human trafficking. In 2016, a Florida man was convicted of sex trafficking after bringing a group of students from Kazakhstan to Miami on J-1 visas to supposedly work in a yoga studio. No such studio existed, and the workers were coerced into providing erotic massages to clientele.
The most sweeping attempt at regulating the J visa program was 2013’s comprehensive immigration reform act, which passed with bipartisan support and is best remembered for expanding the DREAM Act. The bill sought to rein in human trafficking endemic to other guest worker programs by implementing registration requirements for recruiters and making recruitment fees illegal. But the final bill exempted J-1 sponsor organizations from those requirements.
“It really just shows the power of the J-1 lobby,” said Daniel Costa, director of immigration law at the Economic Policy Institute. “This lobby inserted itself into those legislation efforts to make the argument that their entire business model was going to go away if that recruitment registration was implemented.”
By early March, market analysts were already warning of a “record scarcity of workers” in the hospitality industry. Since then, the Trump administration has used Covid-19 as a pretext to pass unprecedented immigration restrictions, attempting to ban asylum indefinitely and suspending most legal immigration until 2021. But in July, the State Department issued a list of exceptions to the president’s proclamations, including one that allows for new J-1 interns and trainees to be admitted if it supports the “economic recovery of the United States.” It has not released a comprehensive policy regarding renewals or extensions for J-1 workers who were already in the country.
While President-elect Joe Biden has promised to reinstitute the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which offered temporary legal status for undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children, and is expected to admit more highly educated tech workers, his initial immigration plan says nothing about reforming the J-1 visa.
For years, advocacy groups such as Centro De Los Derechos Del Migrante have called for oversight of J-1 programs to be transferred to the Department of Labor, which unlike the Department of State, has the power to enforce labor standards and investigate violations such as wage theft. “When you hear employers and politicians talk about the J-1 program, they talk about it like it’s a labor shortage program, not like a cultural exchange program,” said Costa. “Still, there’s no Labor Department involvement in any of this, which I think is really problematic.”
In late March, after losing his job, Mars joined the J-1 Workers Network, a group of about 300 Filipino J-1 visa holders who say they are stuck in cities across the United States. The network was formed in response to a Facebook post by a Filipino J-1 worker describing the Covid-19 layoffs, which was shared nearly a thousand times. The post caught the eye of Migrante USA organizers, who reached out to the workers to develop a campaign.
The Philippines sent 3,000 J-1 interns to the United States, making it the top-sending country in 2019, and most members of the J-1 Workers Network fall under the intern and trainee J-1 categories—professional development programs that target college students and recent college graduates. Network members are making demands of the institutions that they feel abandoned them, from local recruiting agencies to the Philippine and US governments. They are calling for full or partial refunds from visa sponsors or recruitment agencies for programs that were cut short. But their core demand lies in the name of the group itself: Members say that they aren’t “cultural exchange visitors”—they are workers, entitled to rights, benefits, and protections.
Overseas employment is a vital component of the Philippine economy. Remittances from overseas Filipino workers comprise 10 percent of the Philippines’ total GDP. Of the $35 billion to the Philippine economy generated by remittances in 2019, about one-third came from workers in the United States.
Last year, however, the Trump administration removed the Philippines from eligibility for H-2A and H-2B guest worker visas, coded for low-wage work, citing high rates of overstay and problems with human trafficking. Organizers with the J-1 Workers Network say the system itself creates the conditions for overstaying. “These overseas jobs pay so little and Filipino workers pay so much to get these visas. Can you really blame Filipinos for overstaying?” said Migrante USA’s Pempeña. “At the end of the day, they have mouths to feed and debts to pay.”
Every member of the J-1 Workers Network who spoke to me said that the difficulty of attaining an H visa influenced their decision to pursue a J-1 visa instead. But they also wanted to enhance their skills and become more competitive in the Philippine job market. Many were also remitting portions of their wages to support their families back home.
In April, the network sent an open letter to the State Department, requesting a formal response to the demand that the US government provide assistance to victimized and abused J-1 workers and implement protections for J-1 workers during disasters like the pandemic. The State Department never responded to the network, but it did answer my request for comment on the letter. “Intern and trainee exchange programs are not labor programs and exchange visitors are not workers,” a State Department official said in an e-mail.
Members of the J-1 Workers Network said they have mainly relied on advocacy groups like the National Alliance for Filipino Concerns and Migrante USA, as well as GoFundMe campaigns, for financial and logistical assistance during the pandemic. The Alliance for International Exchange, the lobbying group, told me that its member organizations have committed $2.1 million to support exchange visitors affected by the pandemic, including paying for flights home and rent assistance. None of the members of the J-1 Workers Network that I spoke with had received any support from that group.
Since being laid off, Mars has spent his days rummaging through discount department stores in Little Rock, buying brand-name shoes and reselling them at a markup online. His visa is rapidly expiring: He has to decide between going back to the Philippines or riding it out here. Right now, he wants to stay. He might apply for a student visa—or even a T visa, a nonimmigrant visa awarded to victims who can prove they are in the United States as a result of trafficking. “I was treated as a worker—not a manager in training,” he said.
I ask Mars why he’s speaking out about the issue now, despite the risks. “I want to give future J-1s an idea about what to expect when you come to the US,” he says. “Future J-1s shouldn’t have to go through the same things that the current J-1s are experiencing right now.”