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Student visa snafu may cause headaches for Alaska seafood processors

Margaret BaumanThe Cordova Times
U.S. Embassy photo

Time is running short for seafood companies who rely on the federal J-1 visa summer work travel program to supply many workers to process their Alaska harvest, with no word from the federal government on whether they can hire these students this year.

An aide for Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, said there has been no indication when a decision would be forthcoming.

"We are proceeding under the assumption that the J-1 students will be denied re-entry into the program and hoping at the last minute that gets reversed so at some level these folks will be able to participate,” said Norm Van Vactor, of Leader Creek Fisheries, which processes wild Alaska salmon from Bristol Bay.

"We are advertising on the Internet. We have an ad running on Facebook, and have added part-time recruiters to our human resources staff, trying to come up with workers wherever we can. Our priority is to hire Alaskans, Americans, anybody we can get to work for us, (but) it has been very difficult to fill the ranks to get people to work for us for a month in Alaska,” he said.

In a month, maybe stretched to six weeks, these workers can earn $2,000 to $4,000, and over the years Leader Creek has found such workers through the J-1 program , whose future lies with the federal Office of Management and Budget.

Alaska’s congressional delegation earlier in March sent a letter to Jeffrey Zients, acting director of OMB, after learning from the State Department that the agency had transmitted an interim final rule for Zients’ review to exclude the manufacturing sector, including seafood processing, from the J-1 visa summer work travel program

"We request you reject the proposal for interim final rulemaking to exclude seafood processing facilities from the J-1 program and direct the department to proceed with a formal process of proposed rulemaking which includes notice and comments from the affected seafood sector and coastal communities hosting students under the program, said Begich, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska.

"The use of interim final rule making to exclude seafood processing facilities from the J-1 program is not appropriate,” they said.

The congressional delegation noted that recruitment for 2012 employment is well underway. "Adopting new regulations for immediate implementation will have serious adverse impacts on those seafood companies which have hosted students in the past and have complied with all of the program’s requirements,” they said. "An immediate change to the program will cause unnecessary disruption to both host companies and the students who have already attempted to secure jobs for the 2012 summer season.

"This disruption will not only affect the students, but will also have an adverse impact on small businesses in the seafood industry and those small business fishermen who deliver seafood to the affected companies. These impacts on small businesses would be fully vetted if this proposal were to follow the regular process which allows for public comment and additional review under the Regulatory Flexibility Act and the Administrative Procedures Act.”

Copper River Seafoods, another of the seafood firms which has employed student workers through the J-1 program, had already determined that the J-1 program might not be available this year, said Robin Richardson, the company’s chief business development officer.

"Copper River Seafoods has and continues to recruit for a total of 300 seasonal seafood processors, posted on the State of Alaska ALEXsys system,” she said.

"To date, 175 have been successfully recruited. While CRS has successfully used the Travel and Cultural Exchange Program (J1) for the past 10 years, it has been anticipated that this would not be a long-term solution.

"As a result of the concerns by the US State Department, it was apparent that it would not be prudent to depend on the program for summer 2012. Therefore, CRS has adopted the US Department of Labor, Certified Apprenticeship model to fortify a year-round, Alaska-based, skilled workforce to support an increasingly automated manufacturing process. "

The bottom line, Richardson said, is that CRS has anticipated for awhile – "even though we always clearly understood that this was not a work permit visa, that the J-1 program it was a travel/cultural exchange program for college juniors and seniors that came to visit and work.”

Begich also sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who herself worked at a seafood plant in Alaska during her college days, asking her help in keeping the J-1 program intact for seafood workers.

"I know you are familiar with this work from your personal experience during college,” Begich said in a letter to Clinton in February. "The work can be tedious and when the fish are running, require long hours. Frankly, this work is not for everyone, but for those willing to take on the challenge, the seafood industry allows foreign students to experience parts of Alaska, which many tourists pay a premium to visit. The overtime earned helps students afford further travel in our nation during the remainder of the four-month visa period.”

Begich also referred to a letter written to Clinton in late November, in which he had suggested it was time for some restructuring and review of the J-1 program following some situations last summer in which the foreign students became dependent on local residents for food, housing, transportation and inclusion in family activities.

"When I said the summer work travel program should be reviewed… I did not suggest the program should be ended as is now proposed for the seafood industry,” he said.

"As you review the J-1 visa program, I urge you to listen to members of the domestic seafood processing industry about the importance of this program and ways in which their participation meets the goals and intent of the program, including its cultural aspects,” he said.

This story originally appeared in The Cordova Times and is republished here with permission. You can reach Margaret Bauman with comments and suggestions at mbauman@thecordovatimes.com