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Meghann Curtis, International Exchange Programs, CIEE

As the largest sponsor for US J-1 visa programs, CIEE helps nearly 35,000 international students participate in exchange programs each year. Executive VP of International Exchange Programs at CIEE, Meghann Curtis, told The PIE News about her views on the potential impact of these cuts on US businesses and international students.

The PIE: The Trump administration is reportedly floating cuts to the J-1 visa. What is your view on this?

"Alumni around the world have spoken out about how transformational the J-1 programs were in their lives"

MC: The White House initiative of looking at foreign workers taking full-time jobs from Americans is looking at the wrong program.

While it is a cultural exchange program first and foremost, there are thousands of businesses across the country that are completely reliant on summer work and travel workers to help them surge during peak season.

The PIE: In September, the Senate Appropriations Committee amended a State Department spending bill mandate to ensure any changes to the J-1 program be done publicly. What could that mean for the future of these programs?

MC: The Appropriations Committee amendment said any changes to the J-1 program would need to go through a formal process, requiring the executive branch to brief America on the changes, issue an opportunity for the public to weigh in and give feedback.

It really forces them to step through a lengthier and democratic process to make any changes.

The PIE: Is this welcome news?

MC: It definitely is. The amendment was supported by many senators of the Appropriations Committee who strongly support the J-1 program, both Democrats, and Republican.

Informally lots of members of Congress have been reaching out to the White House and to other executive branch federal agencies like the State Department, Department of Commerce and Homeland Security to let them know that [restricting these programs] would be a grave mistake.

“We’ve seen some foreign governments – such as Ireland – get involved and engage with The White House”

Outside of Congress we have seen an outpouring of activity from stakeholders across the board. There was a call from The White House recently with nearly 300 employers joining.

Stakeholders see it as an important source of labour, but also think it enriches their communities and their businesses.

The PIE: CIEE has been highlighting the importance of these programs with campaigns such as the #SaveJ1 advocacy campaign. Does this campaign have support beyond the educational sector?

MC: Yes, I think this campaign has highlighted that a huge network of people, businesses and local economies rely on these programs. I don’t know if there was necessarily that awareness before.

There is growing recognition of how important and effective these programs are at bridging divides and overcoming boundaries.

I also think some people probably dismissed the public diplomacy impact of the program. They may have been thinking that these students just came here to work, and are not really experiencing or learning about America’s values and culture.

The PIE: How has this campaign changed those viewpoints?

MC: This movement has really proved that hypothesis wrong. Alumni around the world have spoken out about how transformational the J-1 programs were in their lives. To this day they maintain friendships and relationships across the US, even though they are now back in their native countries.

These programs are a huge tool in our public diplomacy kit.  If you were to wipe out thousands of visas every year, a lot of bridges would be erased.

The PIE: How have alumni been supporting the campaign?

MC: On instagram alone, alumni have posted 5,000 photos talking about how important and transformational J-1 was for them and what a tragedy it would be if the program was cut.

I think some people were taken aback by how much support there is for this program, not just from the public but as a critical piece of our economy.

While that is good news, I don’t know if we are in any less danger but this level of activity and coordination is certainly helpful and we hope it does alter the outcome.

The PIE: What concerns have been voiced by agents and government outside of the US?

MC: Overseas partners and agents who work with us on these programs have been asking questions and speaking out about what a bad decision canceling these programs would be.

We’ve seen some foreign governments – such as Ireland – get involved and engage with The White House. These programs are really important to [foreign governments] as a means of relationship building with the US; it is a huge platform for the exchange of ideas and friendship for them.

The PIE: What have you been doing to encourage confidence in the market?

MC: CIEE has introduced a blanket refund policy to all our agents in case the program is canceled or restricted in some way. We expect it to be extended to their students.

We hope this policy demonstrates our confidence that these programs will be productive and that we are committed to keeping going despite the uncertainty ahead.

The PIE: What’s next for the campaign?

MC: We may not know what the timeline will be, or what we are up against in some ways, but we have to continue with the program and recruiting students.

All of our overseas partners know they need to operate as though nothing’s changed; they’ve got to get out there and start recruiting for next year.

I really hope that students will not be discouraged from considering applying for a J-1 exchange and come on one.

One of the of the worst outcomes would be for people to think the threat against this program means that it is over, and to walk away from it.

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