The Biden Administration correctly ties the United States’ national security to our country’s economic health in their new Interim National Security Strategic Guidance. These goals, however, are being inadvertently undermined by unnecessary restrictions on international exchange visas. Quick action is needed by the Administration to help protect cultural exchange programs and the American jobs that depend on them.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken outlined in a speech the role American diplomacy will play in advancing the President’s new strategy in the era of COVID-19. “President Biden has pledged to lead with diplomacy because it’s the best way to deal with today’s challenges.” Secretary Blinken also stated that diplomacy “means investing in American workers,” and pledged to deliver for the American people by creating greater economic opportunities.
International cultural exchange programs were designed precisely to meet these twin goals. Authorized by the Fulbright-Hays Act, privately funded BridgeUSA programs have been changing hearts and minds for decades. In separate studies of the Au Pair, Camp Counselor, Intern, Summer Work Travel, and Trainee programs, the research firm EurekaFacts found that on average 75% of international exchange visitors developed a more positive opinion of the U.S. They also develop lasting friendships here and ties to America that often extend to their families and future generations. EurekaFacts further found that exchange visitors on these programs contribute over $1.5 billion a year to the American economy. Even more importantly, many host families, camps, and small businesses report that they would suffer economic harm if exchange visitors were not available.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has caused significant challenges for these hosts, the costs to program sponsors and related industries has also been substantial. Collectively, the loss for these two groups is over $1.23 billion and 6500 jobs. While President Biden has pledged that vaccines will be available for every adult by late May, program sponsors and hosts see in their future severe economic hardship resulting from another summer without international exchange visitors. For many sponsors, such a scenario would be catastrophic.
The culprit? Unnecessary and inappropriate restrictions on travel by J-1 visa applicants. For example, even though J-1 applications can be processed under Presidential Proclamation 10143 (which bans travel from certain areas and countries due to COVID-19), embassies can and should still issue visas for future travel. And yet, applicants are being denied interviews in many countries. Additionally, while a Federal court has enjoined the implementation of Proclamation 10052 (which seeks to ban travel on certain types of visas), embassies routinely cite the Proclamation when denying application interviews.
The international exchange community strongly supports efforts to keep everyone involved with these programs safe, including consular affairs officers. We know, however, that safety can be balanced with enabling critical programs because the travel ban makes exceptions for international students and others. Moreover, the Administration’s requirement that visitors show proof of a negative COVID-19 test before traveling addresses the question of safety.
There are a few quick steps available to address these problems. The Biden Administration should treat exchange visitors like international students and make an exception for them under the travel ban. Additionally, the Administration should extend the Court injunction on P. 10052 to all applicants and let the Proclamation expire at the end of March.
Secretary Blinken is a strong supporter of international exchange programs, because, as he noted, “Not a single challenge that affects [our] lives can be met by any one nation acting alone.” In fact, international exchange visitors fill unique needs in our economy by allowing families to juggle work and childcare, camps to find counselors, businesses in tourist areas to fill labor shortages, rural and other schools to add much needed teachers, and businesses to offer internships to prospective employees and training for existing employees.
By directing American embassies that are open for business to start processing J-1 visa applications again, Secretary Blinken will be taking steps that could save thousands of American jobs while advancing people-to-people diplomacy. Those two goals align perfectly with the Biden Administration’s national security and domestic priorities.
Ilir Zherka is the Executive Director of the Alliance for International Exchange.