In Congress today, a bill that would allow foreign students to work in Alaska fish processing plants cleared a major committee. The provision is part of a spending bill now headed to the Senate floor. Both Alaska senators say they pressed for the return of the J-1 visa program to help meet demand for seasonal seafood processors. But the program is controversial.
J-1 visas are intended to promote cultural exchange. As the State Department explains it in promotional materials, it’s all about “hands-on experience to learn about U.S. society and culture.”
But some U.S. employers and overseas recruiters exploited the program, exposing students only to the culture of hard labor, night shifts and squalid housing. After a protest at a Hershey factory in Pennsylvania, the State Department changed the rules in 2012. It barred J-1 students from certain jobs, including seafood processing. The Alaska industry had been hiring several thousand J-1s a year.
Daniel Costa, who researches immigration issues for the Economic Policy Institute, says the processors should not be allowed to employ J-1s again.
“It was being used more as a cheap labor program,” he said.
He says Alaska fish plants aren’t a good place for these students to fulfill the purpose of the visa.
“They’re stuck out in the middle of nowhere, in isolated towns where there aren’t a lot of cultural exchange activities to do,” he said.
The U.S. has another type of visa for temporary workers, the H2B. Costa says fish processors should really hire H2Bs, but then they’d have to run ads announcing the vacancies to locals first, so employers prefer J-1.
“They don’t have to do the advertising, they don’t have to pay any of the taxes, Medicare, Social Security, that sort of thing,” he said.
Recruitment agencies even have J-1 savings calculators on their websites, showing employers they can save nearly 8 percent per worker if they hire J-1s. Dennis Phelan of the Pacific Seafood Processors Association says his members search near and far for seasonal workers, including from Alaska’s job centers.
“They will tell you we hire every qualified person that they send us,” Phelan said. “But that is just a fraction of what we need.”
They do hire some H2B visa holders, but he says that program is too complicated, and the number of visas issued is limited. Phelan says, though, the processing gig is good for J-1 students.
“Because of the way the salmon season tends to work there tends to be a good bit of overtime and so then they get paid time and a half for that, plus they obviously have free room and board so they have virtually no expenses and are making more than minimum wage,” he said.
In the past, he says, the students had their cultural experience after working.
“The students then once they had finished their contract and had made the money, the vast majority of them then head out and travel across Alaska, travel across other parts of the United States,” he said.
The State Department says that’s not good enough anymore. Phelan says if they’re allowed to hire J-1s again, the processors know they’ll have to provide cultural enrichment during the work period.
“Obviously, these are not heavily populated areas where the plants are and so you’re opportunities for things like that are somewhat limited but obviously we’ll do everything we can to make sure the students are getting out,” he said.
If the visa provision survives negotiations with the House in the months ahead, it would allow foreign students to work as fish processors only through September 2015.