Filipino J1 visa holders on economic struggles during pandemic, feeling exploited

HOT SPRINGS, VA — “It all started with a sudden termination of all J1s, majority of us J1s, so it was done informally, instead of receiving termination letters we were only informed verbally through a phone call or videochat.”

Mary Lee Camello is among the more than 2,000 Filipinos on J1 temporary visitor exchange program, whose contracts were prematurely terminated by their visa sponsors due to the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S.

“Some of us have 3 months left, some of us just arrived and was able to work less than a week, so we became jobless.”

While the J1 visa issued by the U.S. Embassy and managed by the U.S. Department of State is not an employment program, and has no pathway to permanent residency – many of these Filipinos believe they were exploited for cheap labor.

On top of that, their recruiters charged a fee of at least $5,500 just to get into their internship program and these Filipinos also paid for their own immigration and travel-related expenses.

Sheena Reyes in Dallas said they were treated as employees and not as trainees.

“They would make us work all around in departments and stations at times with no breaks, they would change our times cards so they don’t have to pay all our hours. There were threats that if you keep speaking up against the discrimination and harassment, that we would be sent back home to the Philippines.”

Attorney Felix Vinluan said it was “textbook labor trafficking. Maybe the J1 workers who are listening right now can document all these instances., this could help you in your fight for true justice.”

Members of the “J-1 workers’ network turned to the Philippine embassy in Washington DC for assistance.

“We filled up and submitted ATN form, or assistance to nationals funds, as we ask help as regards to for our monthly rent that was due last week — but up until now there was no response,” said Kris Marie Canlas. “We also asked for the help, the assistance for food, grocery, rent and some basic needs. Sadly, they did not grant our request.”

Since the crisis began, the embassy has attended to the concerns of nearly 400 J1 interns. The consulates general also monitor and assist the J1 interns located in their areas of jurisdictions.

Philippine ambassador to the U.S. Jose Manuel Romualdez said in a statement to ABS-CBN News, that it has attended to the concerns of 400 J1 interns.

Requests for Philippine government funding assistance, either for repatriation, welfare, or both, are decided on a case-by-case basis.

And that requests for assistance, either for repatriation and/or welfare are decided on a case-by-case basis.

As a point of information, Filipino exchange visitors are advised prior to departure from the Philippines that they should have access to funds for contingencies. Many j1 interns were able to return home using their personal contingency funds.

J1 visa holders were also expected to have access to funds for contingencies or any emergencies during their stay in the U.S., the embassy said.

Romualdez also said it is advisable for terminated or affected J-1 interns to return to the Philippines than take the risk of remaining in the U.S. during the pandemic.

“While some have received one-time $50 aid and assistance in their plane tickets back home the vast majority have yet to hear back and receive concrete assistance from the Philippine government, specifically through the assistance to nationals program which has an allotment of $20 million dollars in the last 2 years.”

The U.S. State Department has encouraged J1 visa holders to reach out to for questions or complaints about their programs or sponsors.

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