The uncertain future of the J-1 Visa

Three and a half years after Donald Trump announced his intention to abolish the J-1 visa program, it remains in full effect – leaving many wondering about the uncertain future of the initiative.

The J-1 visa allows foreign visitors to enter the United States of America for educational and cultural exchanges in an attempt to give them an experience of what life is really like in the country. This may involve working at a summer camp over the course of a few months, spending a year studying at a university or through other jobs and experiences under the 15 different categories hosted by the program.

In August 2015, Trump announced that should he become president, he would abolish the program and put a résumé bank for American inner-city youth in its place. But, how has getting this visa changed since this presidential campaign promise, and would this new scheme be a viable replacement?

David King, the United Kingdom’s Country Director for Camp Counselors USA, believes the visa is “incredibly important” for the experiences the J-1 allows internationals to be a part of. Camp Counselors USA are one of only two official sponsors for the visa in the UK, and they assist young people wanting to work at American summer camps under the cultural exchange program.

“Back in 2017, the J-1 visa was being closely monitored by the Trump administration. It was believed that this visa was potentially taking jobs away from American workers,” King stated. “Having worked at camp for four summers and in the CCUSA Head Office for 10 years, I know that camps rely heavily on international staff as they simply cannot find American staff to fill these roles.”

According to the State Department, the program allows around 300,000 international visitors from 200 countries into America on the visa each year, a number that hasn’t changed since Trump’s inauguration as president.

According to King, the “process of getting a visa really hasn’t changed over the past few years” for the thousands of people Camp Counselors USA send to American camps under the visa, despite Trump’s campaign promise.

King was part of the 2017 #SaveJ1 social media movement after Trump was inaugurated and the future of the program was at its most uncertain. This movement was launched in an attempt to draw attention to the positive things foreign visitors do in America because of the visa. King believes that this work is “invaluable” and camp workers in particular “also learn skills which are not usually gained through a ‘traditional’ summer job’. The movement involved posting on social media using the hashtag and encouraged Americans to contact local senators and representatives to stop cuts to the scheme. The hashtag is still used daily online despite being first tweeted over two years ago.

Alongside Camp Counselors USA, King helped promote this movement because he believes the visa program “offers an opportunity for people from all over the world to live and work together in a harmonious environment”.

“I believe that the J-1 visa allows young people to gain a level of cultural exchange and understanding which is not possible by simply visiting as a tourist. This allows every camp counselor to engage with the ‘real’ America, learning about the country and the people.”

It appears that with no direct changes to the J-1 program brought into effect over three years after Trump’s promise, the most immediate threat to the visa is Trump’s Presidential Executive Order on Buy American and Hire American.

This Order called for a review of immigration policies in America in an attempt to promote the interests of American workers over international ones, something that appears to be a direct threat to the J-1 program.

The good news for the visa is that this does not seem to have impacted the number of people entering under it, although it adds to the uncertainty surrounding its future – especially if Trump is reelected in 2020.

King summed up why he believes the visa is more important than ever: “As the world can seem fractured and scary at times, it’s important for the J-1 program to thrive. It shows that people from all over the world can find common ground and work together.”

The J-1 visa program appears to be in a stable place for now, but the threats to it are clear and its future is as uncertain as it was when Trump promised to abolish it in 2015.

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