The end of the J1 will be a tragedy

The Visa helps businesses and broadens the horizons of both Americans and Europeans

Just days after returning from my summer on a J1 visa in the US, I received an email from my American sponsors, Interexchange, asking me to take action to help save the J1 Visa. They wrote that “elimination of these programs would keep dynamic young people like you from experiencing life in the U.S”.

As part of Trump’s “Buy American, Hire American” Executive, he targeted the H1-B visa for skilled workers. Now, Laura Merkel writes in the Wall Street Journal: “The Trump administration is considering major reductions in cultural exchange programmes.”

Making it so difficult for young Europeans from opportunities to live and work in America will alienate young Europeans from American citizens and the cultures that exist in the US. It will add to the distaste many young people feel for American politics, and widen the gap between the American worldview and that of the international community.

It is decisions like these which will also heighten America’s cultural and political isolation from the rest of the world. It could be argued young Americans have a much more homogenous cultural experiences than their European counterparts. Few Americans I met had ever travelled outside the US, and most had little to no knowledge of European geography or political situation.

Not only will other young people from all around Europe miss out on an opportunity to experience life within the US, but the US and its citizens will also miss out on exposure to different cultures, as well as losing the seasonal workers that many areas and camps heavily rely on.

The J1 visa is not just for Irish students, as I first believed. Huge amounts of European students also partake in the programmes, which can allow one to work seasonally in the US, or as an au-pair or camp counsellor. Many students from Eastern Europe use the J1 visa, which allows you to work for three months and travel for another.

I was at first sceptical about how much of an American experience I would get on my J1. Irish students go on J1’s to have fun, and live together in large numbers, making it more difficult to get ‘an American experience’.

However working in and American workplace alongside American students and adults, as well as living in the American community, does give you an insight into American life – the good, the bad and the ugly.

I spent my J1 in Newport, Rhode Island: a wealthy, white seaside town which in summer is home to around 200 Irish J1’ers. It is surreal living in a country under Trump, and where news and media coverage of international events is lacking.  It is odd to be in such an ethnically diverse country that is so clearly race divided. But doing so is better than making judgements on the American psyche from afar.

American people are curious about what the international community thinks of them. Young Americans I met often asked me: “what does the rest of the world think of us?” They are conscious of how their reputation internationally has been damaged in the wake of Trump.

Some of those I met asked us “not to judge us on Trump”. Others, if you scratched a little beneath the surface, had gotten behind Trump’s idea of a better America, or expressed their concerns about security threats, or crooked Hilary.

We did experience difficulties in our places of work, for example, J1 students where I worked were not given our tips each week. We had to wait until the end of summer to get them all, which we were uncertain we would ever get.

We made complaints to our agency about this. American workers of the exact same standing received their tips in full each week. This kind of discrimination was not unusual in our workplaces.

Despite the fact that we staffed most of the town, residents of Newport were not fond of the Irish, and we were also denied entry into one of the clubs. Irish students go on J1’s to have fun which can mean they create trouble and noise for permanent residents. The police did not have much else to do in Newport apart from pursuing Irish students.

I’m not an American citizen and I don’t understand what it is to be an American completely. But as someone who found it hard to grasp what it must be like to live in such a place, spending time living over there has been an enlightening and valuable experience, which has helped me to find common ground with fellow young people in America, which will shape how I perceive their country.

The decision to scrap the visa would damage a lot of businesses in the US which rely on the seasonal labour. The large camps which are run throughout the summer in America are staffed mostly by J1 visa holders.

A friend of mine who worked at such a camp has been asked to sign a petition against getting rid of the visa. The camp’s Facebook page itself has also shared a link for the petition along with a video where international counsellors perform a song about the camp, highlighting the valuable contribution of their international staff.

The camps have good reason to be concerned with the potential ban. She told me that camps would be severely affected: “All maintenance and cooking staff and grounds keeping were all European and there were also 32 Irish and 37 English working on J1 visas at my camp alone.”

The camp helped her to learn about American history and culture and also helped the American children to learn about the homes of the camp counsellors from abroad, the camp held many “culture nights” to learn about the different backgrounds of the staff. Certain camps are at risk of closing because they would be unsustainable without their international staff.

At a time when political tensions in both Europe and the US run so high, moves like removing cultural exchange visas will do nothing to defuse such tensions. It will not help to combat the American exceptionalism that has allowed leaders like Trump to rise, and it will not help Europeans to become more empathetic towards American citizens.

Alice Whelan

Alice Whelan is a former Comment Editor and Deputy Comment Editor of Trinity News. She is a Sociology and Political Science graduate.