KODIAK — Fish processors could be blocked from using the U.S. State Department’s J-1 visa program as early as this summer, but processors and Sen. Mark Begich are asking the State Department to hold off for at least a year.
The J-1 visa, which allows fish processors to bring in foreign college students to work during the peak of the salmon season, caused a stir last year when processors hired in expectation of a huge run that turned out flat.
Local workers saw their hours cut, and the large number of temporary foreign workers stressed the island’s support network. In response to public outcry, the State Department drafted a temporary rule blocking J-1 workers from working in “factories, manufacturing, warehouses, retail shipping/packing operations and other such facilities (including seafood packing plants).”
The rule was listed in a memo leaked to the Associated Press and publicized by the Kodiak Daily Mirror in January.
In early February, Sen. Mark Begich, who had asked the State Department to do something about the influx of J-1 workers, wrote a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asking her to hold off on implementing the ban for at least one year.
“When I said the Summer Work Travel program should be reviewed in my earlier letter,” he wrote, “I did not suggest the program should be ended as is now proposed for the seafood industry.”
According to the leaked memo, the new rule was supposed to go into effect in March. The State Department declined to comment, and no word has been received about the rule’s progress.
On Tuesday night, the Kodiak City Council discussed a report from its federal lobbyist and debated whether it should get involved as processors fight the application of the rule this year.
Speaking after the meeting, city Mayor Pat Branson said the council was concerned about the effect of banning J-1 workers.
“That would have a real big effect on the processors in our community,” she said. “We as a city are monitoring this to see where it goes.”
Counci member Terry Haines said his concern is to get workers to Kodiak in a way that doesn’t violate the spirit of the J-1 program, which is intended to give foreign college students a taste of American life. Working in a fish processing plant may not be the “radio Free America type of experience” they are looking for, he said.
He suggested processors may be better off looking at visas that allow temporary foreign workers of all ages, a classification known as the H-series of visas.
“It seems like if we could just get on board with a reasonable law like that, then we’d be better off,” Haines said.
Council member John Whiddon, director of a fish processing plant, said that any changes to the J-1 program should be phased in over time and that implementing them this late in the year, just as processors are planning their summer hiring, isn’t fair.
“I believe industry is doing what they can to respond to what amounts to a draconian move,” he said. “The program has been poorly administered.”
Lale Gurer, who specializes in J-1 visa issues for the Kodiak Chamber of Commerce, said finding replacements for J-1 visa program workers would be difficult. She pointed out that processors are limited only by the scale of their equipment, the number of employees and the amount of fish.
Last year, the amount of fish was down and workers received fewer hours. If J-1 workers are disallowed and processors can’t compensate, there could be too much fish to handle, leading to long waits for fishermen with holds full of salmon.
“That’s a big problem because that would affect quality,” Gurer said.
Lower quality means a lower price for fishermen, in turn affecting the Kodiak economy.
City council member Mark-Anthony Vizcocho said it’s important to remember there is more than one side to the J-1 story. Last year, he and other members of the Filipino-American Society of Kodiak signed a letter urging the federal government to reform the J-1 program.
“When the letter was written,” he said, “it was very hard to see (what) was happening. Maybe at he time that letter was written, we were only looking at the one side.”
Now, he said, he realizes that ending the J-1 program in Kodiak would close off an opportunity for foreign workers to visit America.
“That’s what America is about: a land of opportunities,” he said.
Vizcocho said J-1 workers should have the same opportunities his family had.
“What about the time when my ancestors came over to America?” he asked. “It’s still a sensitive matter right now.”
Contact Mirror editor James Brooks at email@example.com.