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VOA Journalists Put at Risk, J-1 Visas Not Renewed by USAGM

August 26, 2020 (2 min read)

Jessica Jerreat, VOA, Aug. 25, 2020

"This week, Valdya Baraputri had been scheduled to broadcast live from the Republican National Convention. Instead, she and a colleague were on a flight home to Indonesia on Monday, after the U.S. Agency for Global Media did not renew the J-1 visas that allowed them to work for Voice of America.  

Baraputri is one of at least 15 VOA language service journalists due to return to their country of origin in coming weeks. Their J-1 visa renewals came up as USAGM’s new leadership initiated a review into the specialized entry permits for individuals with unique skills. Another 20 journalists, including some who are from repressive countries, have visas expiring by the end of the year.

... In a statement Friday, Rep. Eliot Engel, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said USAGM has failed to provide answers to Congress about the visa renewal process.  

"It's unconscionable that a U.S. government agency would create such fear and uncertainty for people whom we asked to do a job," Engel said. "Congress' attempts to seek answers from USAGM on this matter have been met with silence. It's clear that the agency is just trying to run out the clock until these journalists are forced to leave."

... Sanford Ungar, VOA director under the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations and current director of the Free Speech Project at Georgetown University, questioned the motive behind the visa review.

“This is a terrible mistake — and a direct hit to VOA’s ability to perform its legitimate responsibilities. It will weaken the organization and make it more vulnerable to political attack,” Ungar told VOA, adding that it would make it harder for the broadcaster to defend its integrity from attacks by hostile foreign governments.

... Stephen Yale-Loehr, an immigration law professor at Cornell Law School and co-author of “J Visa Guidebook,” told VOA that J-1 and other work-based visa holders bring “substantial economic benefits” to the U.S.  

“Many of these jobs are specialized and, depending on the nature of the job, it may not be feasible for an employer to find a U.S. worker to replace them,” he added. 

Yale-Loehr said that while visa sponsors do not have legal obligations to renew visas of employees, “They may have a moral obligation if they're sending J-1 workers back to harm's way.”  

Visas holders fearing persecution if they return to their home countries have a right to seek asylum, Yale-Loehr said."