Alaska News

Clinton emails released by WikiLeaks reveal unlikely exchange over workers at Alaska fish processing incident

Among the revelations in a batch of Hillary Clinton's emails recently released by WikiLeaks is an exchange about an incident at an Alaska fish processing plant that drew attention of the top levels of the U.S. State Department but was never known to the public until now.  

The situation involving young foreign workers from Central America laboring in a remote Alaska fish plant in the Aleutians occurred in January 2012, when Clinton was secretary of state.

At the time, the U.S. State Department was dealing with an onslaught of bad press about its J-1 Summer Work Travel visa program, which allows young foreign students to work seasonal jobs and travel in the United States as a "cultural exchange."

The visa program is supposed to be a tool of soft diplomacy, but critics have charged that workers have been exploited by employers and work in conditions that offer no cultural experience of the United States.

[In Alaska, young foreign workers on "cultural exchange" visas wash the dishes and make hotel beds]

The previous August,  J-1 visa workers laboring at a Hershey's chocolate factory in Pennsylvania staged a boisterous protest over poor conditions, leading to front-page headlines in the New York Times.

The State Department had begun to investigate their sponsor, the nonprofit Council for Educational Travel USA. The group, known as CETUSA, was one of the leading companies placing J-1 workers in the U.S., including many in Alaska seafood jobs. 


Concerns about CETUSA's Alaska operations landed in Clinton's inbox  in a Jan. 26, 2012, email with the subject line "Heads Up: Another SWT Problem," for the summer work travel program.

"The staff of one of Alaska's Senators called (the State Department) this afternoon to say there is a group of Costa Rican kids working in a fish packing plant in Alaska under very poor conditions," wrote Julieta Valls Noyes, then a deputy executive secretary at the department. "Apparently some of the kids may have developed frostbite in their feet because the plant is so cold."

[Are foreign students who come to Alaska for summer work on a cultural exchange or just low-paid labor?]

The staff was from the office of Sen. Mark Begich, who had sent a letter to Clinton raising problems with  J-1 workers two months earlier. The Costa Ricans were in Sand Point.

Cheryl Mills, a top aide to Clinton, forwarded the message to her with a single word of commentary: "sigh."

There's no response from Clinton herself in the WikiLeaks emails.

Four days later, another email mentioning Alaska landed in Clinton's inbox.

The department had terminated CETUSA's status as a sponsor for workers, effectively putting it out of the J-1 visa business. A New York Times reporter wanted an interview.

"Should (the reporter)  raise the topic, we are prepared to speak to the events concerning the six CETUSA-sponsored SWT students in Alaska," wrote a state department official. "Weather has delayed their departure from Sand Point, but they are due to arrive in Anchorage today and will be assigned to other places of employment."

The State Department was also "reaching out" to the other 41 J-1 workers in Alaska at the time "to ascertain their welfare," she wrote. 

It's not clear what happened to the six Costa Rican students or whether the reports of frostbite were accurate. CETUSA did not respond to requests for an interview. Soon, there would be no more J-1 workers in seafood processing jobs in Alaska. Later that year the State Department announced it was overhauling the J-1 program. Seafood processing was on the list of banned placements. 

Michelle Theriault Boots

Michelle Theriault Boots is a longtime reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. She focuses on in-depth stories about the intersection of public policy and Alaskans' lives. Before joining the ADN in 2012, she worked at daily newspapers up and down the West Coast and earned a master's degree from the University of Oregon.