Loss of J-1 visas has U.S. processors scrambling
Slender, bright young things file into the long, wooden hall at Peter Pan Seafoods in Dillingham, Alaska, to grab coffee and lunch on their break from working the line. They mill around and quickly fill in the empty seats along the rows of tables, or sit in a semi-circle outside smoking. It’s the scene locals jokingly refer to as the United Nations in Dillingham. The seafood processing workers are mostly college students hailing from foreign countries. Murmurs of conversations held in foreign tongues rise in the air at the plant near Nushugak Bay.
But this is the last season that will see foreign college students working here. They’re on what’s called a J-1 Summer Work Travel Visa. It’s a program under the State Department that allows foreign college students to work summer jobs in the U.S. in the spirit of cultural exchange. But after November of this year, the federal government is ending the program for all food manufacturers in the U.S.
That’s left seafood processors in Alaska working to figure out how they’ll replace more than 4,000 workers who come over through the J-1 program each fishing season to work the line.
“The answer is, we don’t know what we’re going to do yet,” said Ocean Beauty Seafoods spokesman Tom Sundle.