Russ Allen: Who Are The J-1s?

Adrianna is a 19-year-old college student from Romania whom I met while she was working as a clerk/bagger at a Harwich grocery store. She received permission from the U.S. State Department to visit the United States from early June through late September under its J-1 Visa Exchange Visitor Program under the summer work travel program category, one of 15 provisions that range from professors/research scholars to alien physicians and government visitors. It is important in telling her story to describe that program as stated on the J-1 visa website:

“The primary goals of the Exchange Visitor Program are to allow participants the opportunity to engage broadly with Americans, share their culture, strengthen their English language abilities, and learn new skills or build skills that will help them in future careers.

“Participants are young leaders eager to hone their skills, strengthen their English language abilities, connect with Americans, and learn more about the United States. J-1 visa exchanges include a cultural component that gives participants the opportunity to engage more broadly with Americans and share their own culture with their U.S. host communities. They return home eager to stay connected, to expand their networks, and to explore future exchange opportunities as ‘citizen ambassadors.’

“Summer work travel program: College and university students at foreign universities gain first-hand experience as they work in seasonal or temporary jobs and travel in the United States during their summer.”

Adrianna’s J-1 visa was granted under that program; to what degree her experience has measured up to the expectations expressed in that description is a matter for further exploration. First, some background information.

Before Adrianna could plan her summer on Cape Cod she had to jump through several hoops, using one of the international support organizations that facilitate the process from applying for the J-1 Visa through travel, medical, insurance and other arrangements, and monitor the students’ experiences while in the United States. Adrianna was required to supply $3,000 up front to meet the costs involved in obtaining permission to come to the United States and to meet initial expenses once here.

Not all aspects of the program are addressed by those companies. The J-1 visa holders often obtain their own housing and employment and transportation while here (usually bicycles), pay rent for their living arrangements, and meet other expenses and personal needs. As a result, J-1s on Cape Cod spend much of their summer working at a full-time and a part-time job, often at minimum wage, and are only able to travel between Labor Day and their return to school. For many their travel is limited to the area between Boston and Washington, DC.

Fortunately, some local businesses that depend on J-1s for their temporary summer help assist students in finding housing, often in private homes that may house a group of workers. Their rent ranges between $125 to $150 a week, with the students responsible for their own food, laundry, and personal expenses (communication back home is through cellphones, Facetime and Skype). Local support is also given to the students, including help finding housing, obtaining a bicycle (and information on bike safety) and social interaction. The most notable program is based out of the Mid-Cape Worship Center in Dennisport; Saint Christopher’s Episcopal Church in Chatham sponsors an annual J-1 picnic and the Cape Cod Bible Alliance Church on Route 6A in Brewster hosts a J-1 program at Nauset Beach, though its Facebook group is closed and no further information was available.

Things do not always go smoothly despite these well-intentioned actions directed to the J-1s on Cape Cod. One student agreed to a weekly rent of $250 and then found she had no money for food. Some private housing is overcrowded and inadequate (and some homeowners are not insured for tenants), and the success of some employers in creating temporary housing or using an existing building for this purpose has yet to be determined. In this age of immigration paranoia, some people are impatient or intolerant of J-1s’ imperfect English, or of a tendency to converse in their native language when talking to each other, even though these do not affect their ability to do the work for which they are employed. Then there is the occasional incident when impatience turns into bias that brings honor and respect only to the J-1s who quietly stand their ground.

There are popular misconceptions when it comes to J-1s. They are not immigrants, nor is their visa program connected to Immigration Control and Enforcement (ICE) or the Department of Homeland Security. They do not take jobs away from U.S. citizens, many of whom will not work for minimum wage. Taxes are withheld on their earnings, including for Social Security and Medicare, even though the students may never benefit from a refund or those programs. They have their own medical insurance and are no more on the “public dole” as recipients of government services than any summer visitor to the Cape.

The provision under which Adrianna is spending her summer on Cape Cod is one aspect of a larger program, one of several the U.S. Department of State administers to allow foreign nationals to experience American life and culture. Does the J-1 visa program work? Anecdotally, for business owners on Cape Cod these students meet a vital need for additional, hard-working, relatively inexpensive temporary employees. For those willing to house and otherwise interact with them, J-1s break down barriers that threaten to isolate our country from its larger global context. As for the main goals of the program, the experience of America it is intended to offer through work and travel to foreign students, there seems an imbalance in favor of the work aspect, to the detriment of their exposure to our culture and the travel dimensions of being a J-1 visa holder.