The state department's rush to
reform the J-1 visa program has slowed, says Senator Mark Begich. The program
had been under intense scrutiny since last fall when hundreds of J-1 student
workers at a Hershey's chocolate plant in Pennsylvania walked out in protest of
working conditions. Begich worked quickly to convince his colleagues that the
program is essential to operating Alaska's
canneries. However, Kodiak's Filipino-American Association is still taking a
stance against the program in its current form.
President Mary Guilas-Hawver says too many locals are being displaced out of
cannery jobs because of the J-1 visa workers.
that's unfair because these people are the ones who are paying their taxes
here, making Kodiak their home and send their children to school here. The
problem is they're not able to make money to live and support themselves during
the summer. The worst thing yet is that they're not able to put money in their
unemployment bank to use during the winter. We had, as you know, a really bad
winter and for these folks that don't have any money to buy heat for their
homes or food to feed their children, it's double that or triple that, even."
Begich's office is currently drafting legislation that would establish a
so-called H20 visa that would essentially replace the J-1 program. The new visa
would allow canneries to hire foreign workers without having to do so under the
premise of cultural exchange, which is a main tenet of the J-1 program. While
the details of the proposed visa are still being worked out, Begich says he has
three priorities when addressing concerns about the J-1 program.
priority is to continue to make our fishing industry strong and healthy. Second
priority is if we can hire Alaskans, US citizens, we want to make that happen
and when that's not possible we need to make sure that we have a visa program
that allows access to employees to work in this industry that is critical for
of that reassures Guilas-Hawver that the Senator understands how Kodiak is different
from other rural cannery towns. She says the influx of J-1 visa workers is not
only unnecessary because there are plenty of locals ready to work, but it's
also very hard on the community. Each summer the local homeless shelter and
food bank exhausts many of their resources providing for foreign workers.
don't mind the J-1 visa workers as long as they're not in Kodiak. I understand
that other communities in Alaska,
the cruise ships and things like that, they need them. We can only accommodate
some of them, not all of them, not 350 every summer."
adds that the issue is something all Kodiak residents should pay attention
are advocating for the people that live here. It's not just the Filipino
community that is affected by it; it's the whole Kodiak community. If they
don't have a job here they will go to a greener pasture. We've seen a lot of
people leaving with their children and that affects the school. We're losing
that money that is supposed to go to the school. It's like a domino affect."
Begich says he's working closely with the State Department to keep the J-1
program in effect until the details of his H20 visa can be worked out.