By Lennet Penate, originally Published on Immigration Impact

The coronavirus pandemic has affected day-to-day life for everyone, including foreign nationals who planned to participate in the U.S. Department of State’s Exchange Visitor Program. These programs use on-the-job training and are often planned months in advanced.

Many large organizations and companies that sponsor and host exchange visitors—who come to the United States on J-1 visas—have been left wondering if their programs will happen at all this year.

In response to the ongoing pandemic, the State Department released guidance that recommended pausing exchange programs for 60 days starting on March 12. The department said it would reevaluate every 30 days after that.

Soon after the pause in programs, the State Department announced there would be an ongoing suspension of routine visa services worldwide. Since then the agency has not provided further guidance on how or whether embassies and consulates will reopen in the near future.

This has impacted those host organizations and companies who believed that their exchange visitors would be arriving shortly after May 11, when the State Department pause was due to expire.

Programs that were set to start in May, June, and July are still facing uncertainty. Individuals who had embassy appointments have had to delay their arrival. Others who received their visas before the embassy closures are still not able to travel due to the continued restrictions on arrivals from certain countries. In other cases, countries have implemented their own strict lockdowns, which have prevented people from being able to leave their own country.

Even though U.S. embassies remain closed, many sponsors have continued to process applicants for future programs. They believe that as restrictions loosen, embassies will reopen and there will be an influx of applicants at embassies worldwide. In the meantime, many institutions are preparing and anticipating the needs and precautions that need to be in place for a smooth transition.

The State Department has continued its pause on all in-person programs funded by ECA (Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs). Privately funded programs can resume, though the State Department has reminded sponsors working with these private programs to continue to follow guidance to protect the wellbeing of J-1 applicants and participants. Private programs will still, however, be subject to embassy closures and travel restrictions.

As the uncertainty regarding COVID-19 continues to unfold, many J-1 visa recipients presently in the United States are left uneasy as states continue to open. J-1 host organizations have wondered how they will adapt their training programs to take COVID-19 into account while maintaining the essence of their original training plan.

Despite the ongoing obstacles, many programs have adopted creative ways to consider the health, safety, and wellbeing for their active J-1 participants through virtual participation.

Programs that started before the outbreak have shifted to a “virtual” style of training and have continued to come up with ways J-1’s can experience American culture and stay connected. This has included everything from virtual socializing to contracting professors from local colleges to provide presentations on American culture.

During the coronavirus pandemic, we should continue to embrace this kind of creativity to ensure that Americans and J-1 visitors can continue to benefit from cultural exchange while keeping everyone safe. The uncertainty facing the exchange program right now is a welcome opportunity to innovate and continue to build bridges during a time of social distancing.

Posted in: Immigration