J-1 Exchange Visitors Stage Protest and Advice for Those Applying

Hundreds of students visiting the U.S. on the J-1 exchange visitor program staged a protest at a Hershey’s chocolates plant in Palmyra, Pennsylvania. The students, who are visiting from countries such as China, Nigeria, Romania, and Ukraine thought that they were coming to the U.S. through a State Department summer exchange visitor program intended to promote educational and cultural exchanges. Instead, the students were put to work lifting heavy boxes and packing chocolates on a production line, with many of them working the night shift. Adding insult to injury, their program fees and rent were deducted from their minimum wage salaries, leaving them with little to live on during the week. The students also said that they were not earning enough to recover what they had spent in their home countries to obtain their visas. For most exchange visitors, earning money is not the goal, but given that they are working on a factory line and not gaining the experience they signed up for, they are right to complain about the salary.

This news was sad, but ultimately not that shocking. However, most people I have met who have gone through a J-1 program have had a wonderful experience. My advice is, when applying for a J-1 visa, to carefully consider the Exchange Visitor Program (EVP) that you will go through. Read its website carefully, talk to the Director, and be selective about where you will be placed.

Additionally, be aware that many exchange visitors (although not all) become subject to a two-year home residence requirement after being on the program. The Exchange Visitor Skills List is a list of fields of specialized knowledge and skills that are deemed necessary for the development of an exchange visitor’s home country. When you agree to participate in an Exchange Visitor Program, if your skill is on your country’s Skills List you are subject to the two-year foreign residence (home-country physical presence) requirement, which requires you to return to your home country for two years at the end of your exchange visitor program.

What does this mean as a practical matter? It can mean that if you meet and fall in love with a U.S. citizen while on the program, and decide to marry and live together in the U.S., that you may have to apply for a waiver of the two-year home residence requirement before being able to apply for residence. Otherwise, you may go through the adjustment of status process (applying for residence within the U.S.) only to be told at the end that you are inadmissible and must return to your home country for two years. By that time, you may have accrued unlawful presence and may face a three or 10-year bar to returning unless you also have another type of waiver approved.

So to recap, choose your J-1 EVP carefully. I do strongly advise that you speak with the Director or someone knowledgeable at the EVP before committing to the program. Also, plan ahead. Be aware that if you are subject to the Skills List or your program is being paid for by the U.S. (particularly if it is a substantial sum of money), that you may have to return to your home country for two years. Even though your visa may say you are not subject to the Skills List, mistakes are sometimes made. Double-check yourself. Finally, if you will be applying for adjustment of status or seeking a waiver, I would seek the services or guidance of an immigration attorney. Best of luck.

For more information about me and my practice, please visit my website at www.alanoimmigrationlaw.com.

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