The Trump administration recently proclaimed that it would shut down a number of migrant work visa programs through the end of the year. It was, in many ways, a symbolic measure—it overlaps with COVID-19-related restrictions already underway—purported to help boost “American” jobs by keeping out foreign workers.
Caught up in the political maelstrom are the actual workers, for whom Trump’s proclamation is just one of many endemic problems with so-called “guest worker” visas. One of the suspended programs, known as the J-1 visa or Summer Work Travel, is not even supposed to be a “work” program, but a “cultural exchange” for college students. In reality, it has become a massive pool of temporary labor for many service industries, and COVID-19 has frozen it indefinitely.
Ariana Ojeda, a J-1 student from Peru, was working at Kalahari Resorts in Pennsylvania when the pandemic hit and the tourism industry ground to a halt. She and about eighty coworkers were evicted from their living quarters in a spartan former hotel that housed up to four people in a room and cost $190 every two weeks.
About two weeks before her program’s end date on March 31, she recalled, “They closed the resort [and] they told us that they canceled all the contracts. Then, one day, they just told us that we have to get out of the house that we were living in, and we didn’t have any place to go. . . . So, they basically kicked us out of the house.”
Since so many hotels were closed, they spent a couple of nights trying to avoid homelessness—an unexpected American cultural experience. “Some guys rented a car to sleep,” she said. “And some of them had to go to Washington or New Jersey to see their relatives. . . . That was really difficult. Because of the coronavirus, we didn’t have hotels or Airbnbs to stay in.”
The State Department eventually pressured the resort to let them return to the house for a few days to regroup. But after a few days, they were told to leave again. (Kalahari Resorts did not respond to a request for comment.)
Ariana worked as housekeeper at the resort, and supplemented her $11 hourly wage with restaurant work. With the rush of winter tourists, Ariana said she worked straight through the end of December and early January, from about 9:30 a.m. to 6 or 7 p.m., and then worked the evenings at a restaurant, ending her day around 1 or 2 a.m. She also picked up a lifeguarding job in mid-January.
Though the J-1 program is marketed heavily abroad as a travel adventure, the program has come under fire in recent years for scandalous incidents of labor trafficking, luring young people into abusive or fraudulent job schemes in the hospitality, manufacturing, and service industries.
Though Ariana’s employer was not as exploitative as the most extreme cases, she faced the typical exorbitant charge that J-1 workers must pay to the agencies that broker visas each year: $3,000 to arrange a visa that ultimately yielded about $7,000 in wages.
Ariana recalled that she was looking forward to living and working abroad: “I was outside my country. I hoped [for] something different, something special.” She eventually realized that holding down two low-wage jobs and living in makeshift quarters with other guest workers did not lend itself to “cultural exchange.”
For other students, she advised, “You have to choose very well the job and the place to stay. And also, you have to know that some of them will not treat you, like you deserve to be treated.” Yet she still wants to return next year, if the program resumes.
Given that they are primarily a vehicle for importing temporary, usually low-paid workers, much of the opposition to Trump’s visa ban has come from business groups. But advocates for so-called “guest workers” have also called for an overhaul of the visa programs to provide comprehensive, equitable labor protections. Currently, however, many young workers see the J-1 as a rare chance to work legally in the United States.
Yannolys De Jesus, a recent college graduate in the Dominican Republic, worked as a server in a Baltimore restaurant last summer, putting in twelve-hour days that sometimes drove her to tears. Still, she said, she got satisfaction out of supporting herself abroad for the first time and planned on returning this summer for another four-month stint.
The pandemic, followed by Trump’s proclamation, quashed her plans. By then, she had already paid the visa agency $2,250, plus hundreds more for housing and other fees. She had even stayed on at her university after graduating, taking more classes so she could qualify as a student for the J-1 program again.
Despite the pandemic and the flagging economy, she still hopes to return some time next year. But those who think the J-1 visa will be their ticket to an exciting cultural experience will be disappointed. “They say that this is a cultural interchange,” she said:
That is not that. You go there to work. You don’t have enough time to be surrounded by other people, to make plans, to get to know each other. . . . The first thing that they say to you is, “You’re going to have a lot of time to meet people from other countries . . . to have fun.” But then I was there worrying about my life: “Oh, my goodness, I don’t have enough money, how am I going to pay for this?” That was the worst part.
Michelle Chen is a member of Dissent’s editorial board and co-host of its Belabored podcast.