J1 Visa Abuse

What is J1 visa, how are students on J1 visa getting abused, how to overcome the abuse and enjoy the full benefits of the program.

J1 Visa Abuse: What it is and How You Can Avoid It

Thousands of intelligent, motivated and enthusiastic foreign students travel to the United States on J1 visas in search of fun, adventure and meaningful work every year. But rather than experiencing the summer of their lives, some students end up toiling for hours every day in inhumane conditions or even being forced to work as strippers. The J1 visa for cultural work exchange is being abused on a daily basis, according to reports. Students and young people coming to the US expecting to widen their experience of the world are being shown the seedy side of America, say authorities probing abuse allegations under the worker visa program. Several recent high-profile cases show how the J1 visa is often a cover for exploitative labor and even people trafficking. But does this mean that students should avoid the J1 visa program? What can young people do to make sure their cultural exchange in the United States is a positive experience?

J1 Visa Abuse: What’s Going On?

Take a look at recent headlines and you’ll see the J1 visa exchange program has come under criticism from students and officials alike for the ways in which some employers or sponsors have been allegedly treating students and workers under their charge.

A group of college students from Argentina, Chile, Malaysia and other countries who traveled to the United States on the cultural work exchange visa program in 2013 ended up challenging the working conditions they allegedly suffered at a McDonald’s in Pennsylvania. Students like Jorge Rios from Argentina paid up to $3,000 for the visa processing and the program fee only to arrive in the US and discover the program wasn’t quite what they expected. The students worked for a McDonald’s franchise and lived in the unfinished basement of the house of the franchise owner – sharing the small rooms between seven people while still being expected to pay $300 a month for rent (over the odds for rent in that part of the country). They were told they would get 40 hours’ work a week but they only received 25, although they had to remain on-call whenever they weren’t in the restaurant. If they complained, the owner threatened them with deportation, the students claim.

However, Rios decided not to keep quiet. He staged a strike and filed grievances with the U.S. Labor Department and State Department. In 2013 he and his fellow J1 student workers staged a protest inside the restaurant chanting “McDonald’s, McDonald’s, can’t you see, what justice means to me” and displaying signs reading “J-1 Abuse, Not Lovin’ It.”

J1 Students Stripping and Begging for Work

There are other stories of students from abroad being left high-and-dry in the US, or working in undesirable jobs simply to make ends meet after a promised job never materializes.

One Romanian student came to the US on the J1 visa hoping to be able to save money to go to dental school in her home country but ended up without a job and having to beg for work as well as share a three-bedroom house with 30 other students in a similar situation.


A Russian student went to Florida to work in a souvenir shop but ended up in a topless bar because she couldn’t earn enough money to survive by working the shop. This is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to illegal and immoral business. Some students have their passports confiscated and are told to pay for travel and work documents, or are threatened with being sold to other businesses, in cases of illegal trafficking – pushing their families into serious debt and causing considerable stress.

Surviving on $1 an Hour?

According to an Associated Press investigation into J1 visa abuse, some students took home only $1 an hour or less from their summer jobs, while others were forced to work as strippers instead of as waitresses like the adverts promised. Adult entertainment companies and strip clubs solicit for J1 workers, critics claim, even though the regulations surrounding the J1 visa prohibit students from taking on work that could “bring the Department of State into notoriety or disrepute.”

Foreign students are paying recruiters to find them jobs but then they end up without work in the United States, and fall into debt trying to survive in the country. Many are forced to steal essentials like food and toiletries in order to get by. Or they are promised good quality jobs and end up with low-paid, menial work like sweeping floors or washing dishes. Recruiters charge students high rents for substandard accommodation – workers have been packed into dirty, cramped apartments sharing with other students, with many not having enough beds so the students are forced to sleep in shifts.

The AP investigation found almost all of the 70 students interviewed were disappointed and some very angry at their treatment on the program. Students are threatened with eviction or deportation if they complain or if they quit.

What is the J1 Visa Program?

The J1 visa program was initiated after World War II in order to foster cultural diplomacy. According the State Department the “Exchange Visitor (J) non-immigrant visa category is for individuals approved to participate in work-and study-based exchange visitor programs.” The visa is designed to promote global understanding through cultural and educational exchange, and participants can work in designated programs during their time in the US as well as use their free time to travel around the country. For example, students can participate in an au pair program, work as a camp counselor, study at college or university, work as an intern, work as a physician, undertake scholarly research, study at school, teach, or work on a casual basis over the summer. The period for the visa varies from a few weeks to a few years, depending on the program.

One of the most popular programs on the J1 visa is the Summer Work and Travel Program which allows foreign students to visit for up to four months. Students work all over the US, in theme parks and ski resorts, resort restaurants and leisure centers. Many of these students have great experiences of the program, making new friends and earning some money for travel or to help them pursue their studies when they return to their home countries.

Benefits of the J1 visa

Not everyone has a negative experience on the J1 visa program. When the program works, the J1 visa can be a force for positive change in the life of the visa holder. For example, working for the summer in a National Park gives an overseas student an experience they could not repeat in their hometown. Working as a trainee at a multinational company in the US provides valuable work experience on a participant’s CV. Working as a camp counsellor or au pair gives a student that loves children the experience of working on their vocation in a different country. At its heart, the cultural exchange idea behind the J1 visa program is even more important today than in the past, when today people of all nationalities must work closely together but there is still cultural misunderstanding and issues with prejudice.

Is J1 Visa Abuse Being Investigated?

Incidences of abuse, according to the government, are rare and regrettable. Robin Lerner, deputy assistant secretary in charge of exchange programs, says “Most of the program is filled with wonderful placements and the students say what a wonderful time they had and the time they spent here in the United States will forever change their lives.”  But, as the stories above show, there are clearly incidents of J1 visa abuse and whether these are rare or widespread they deserve to be investigated. Deputy assistant secretary Lerner says any report of J1 visa abuse is taken seriously. In some cases the company that was licensed to offer a program on the visa scheme is disqualified and spot checks are performed on program sponsors, officials state. However, AP says that the State Department has failed to keep track of the number of complaints, much less taken responsibility for investigating issues.

Officials in the government have been warned about the problems with J1 visa abuse for 20 years, according to protesters, but the State Department is only now taking the issue seriously. According to John Woods, the deputy assistant director of national security for Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, there are a minimum of two federal investigations into human trafficking linked to J1 visas and more are in the pipeline.

J1 Program and the Debate on Temporary Workers

Millions of foreign workers come to the US on various visas in order to fill temporary working roles. Many industries rely heavily on cheap labor from abroad in order to fulfill seasonal tasks like harvesting or working the tourist season, or to provide staff for jobs that many Americans will not take, like home care. But how many temporary workers should be allowed into the country, and how much should they be paid? Businesses hiring foreign students save money because they don’t have to pay Social Security and unemployment benefits. Plus, students must have their own health insurance before they are allowed on the program, which removes another cost from employers. Unfortunately, this seems to be the green light for some companies and individuals to abuse the system.

How to Enjoy a Positive J1 Visa Experience

Yet even with these reports of visa abuse on the J1 scheme, the program is certainly not off-limits to overseas students. What should you do if you are interested in spending time working and studying in the US on this visa? Your first step, if you are interested in the J1 visa experience, is to choose a program (au pair, camp counsellor, intern etc.). Be aware of the requirements and eligibility before you sign up. For example, you must “possess sufficient proficiency in the English language to participate in their programs”. You also need to have medical insurance at the minimum level of benefits as stated in the regulations for the chosen program. In order to get the correct coverage, it is advisable to check with the sponsor organization and then find the right package for your needs. If you do not have the appropriate medical insurance then you are at risk of being expelled from the program.

After you decide on a program you are interested in, the next step is to find a sponsor. Unfortunately for some students, not all “sponsors” are legitimate. Unscrupulous third-party agencies promise steady jobs and a chance to travel but end up providing nothing or – perhaps even worse – dangerous working conditions and unattractive jobs. Students applying for the J1 program can lower the risk of falling into the same trap by only working with reputable agencies – look at the list of Designated Sponsor Organizations on the list provided by the State Department. While, as discussed above, these agencies are not constantly vetted by the government they do have to apply and be granted the status of Designated Sponsor Organization by meeting certain requirements. There are thousands of organizations on the list so students do not need to work with organizations in their home country that are not officially linked to the cultural exchange program. Many of the organizations place workers and students all over the country, regardless of where they are located in the USA.

Check the Credentials

Students and other interested participants should get feedback about the organization they are interested in working with. Ask on J1 visa forums or Google the name of the organization and “review” or “feedback”. If no feedback is forthcoming, ask the organization directly if they have past participants that are available to talk about their experience in the program. Be very careful about giving money to any organization, whether they are on the Designated Sponsor Organization list or not, until you are absolutely certain what you get for your money, and how you can claim money back if you are not satisfied. Find out about the pay and the benefits, as well as the accommodation and any extras. Be aware of what is not included, for example meals or transport from the airport to your workplace. Ask plenty of questions about the role, what you will be asked to do, how long you will work, whether you get any vacation, and what the organization expects from you.

Bear in mind that sponsors have certain obligations to the participant in terms of supporting them and monitoring them throughout their stay. Sponsors must provide the participant with information about the program and any relevant related matters before the participant leaves from the US. Specific program information must be made available and the contractual obligations must be clear. If this information is not available, ask. If it is not provided, do not work with the sponsor – the job and the experience should be properly explained, otherwise you risk turning up to the United States and getting a shock when you discover what you need to do. Orientation materials should also be provided, with details about the region and the state, and other information about what to expect when you are living in the USA.

Understand the Fees Involved

The J1 visa program is by no means a free ride. You need to have realistic expectations if you want to enjoy the experience to the full. Unless you are lucky enough to be in a federally funded program then the sponsor organization will charge every participant a fee to take part. The fees vary depending on the program, the length of the program, and the exchange category. In addition, you may have to pay a SEVIS 1-901 fee. There are also fees for the visa processing. Every exchange visitor must pay the nonimmigrant visa application processing fee – you can find out about this cost at the State Department website.

However, it is important to remember that paying these fees is normal – having to pay over-the-odds for substandard accommodation, being forced to pay a fee when you get to the US in order to start work, paying for over-priced meals when this was not stated in your contract, or paying extra once in the country for anything that wasn’t previously explained and accounted for is not normal. The J1 visa program has unfortunately been targeted by unprofessional and immoral agencies striving to make an unfair profit at the expense of students looking for legitimate work and travel experiences.

If you want to avoid J1 visa abuse, do your homework. Be smart and trust your instincts.  But above all, make the most of what could be a fantastic experience for cultural exchange – if you get the chance to take part in a legitimate J1 visa program then don’t hesitate to go for it.