VOA Journalists Fly Home After USAGM Fails to Renew J-1 Visas

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.  FILE – The facade of the Voice of America building is seen in Washington, June 15, 2020.VOA, which broadcasts in 47 languages, relies on the specialized regional knowledge, contacts and language skills provided by its journalists from around the world.  USAGM, which oversees Voice of America and four other networks, announced last month it was conducting a case-by-case assessment of J-1 renewal applications. The chief executive is responsible for giving the final approval of visa renewals submitted by the broadcasters.  Visa review The review was aimed at improving agency management, protecting U.S. national security and ensuring that hiring authorities are not misused, a USAGM spokesperson said in a July statement.FILE – Congressman Eliot Engel addresses the media in the Riverdale section of New York, June 23, 2020.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.”Pack is scheduled to testify before the House committee on Sept. 24.Engel, a Democrat Party representative for New York, warned that some VOA journalists were at risk, especially those returning to repressive countries that regularly jail or harass the media. US Media Agency Reports Years-long Problems With Vetting Employees Report published by USAGM’s new CEO says problems with vetting employees, including some foreign nationals, go back almost a decade Grant Turner, a former CEO and chief financial officer for the agency, who is one of at least seven staff the USAGM placed on administrative leave on August 12 over investigations into security issues, said the security review and the J-1 visa issue are part of a pattern of mismanagement in recent months.  Turner told VOA the loss of staff in VOA’s language divisions could lose VOA vital audiences in countries such as Iran, China and Venezuela, where citizens have very limited access to independent news. He added that not renewing visas was “a betrayal of promises” the agency made to foreign reporters who came to work for VOA.  The USAGM said Turner and others were placed on leave to restore “respect for the rule of law in our work.” Turner said he rejects the reasons given for his being placed on leave.  J1 visa status  Since 1961, the Exchange Visitor Program, which includes J-1 visas, has provided short-term work opportunities in the United States for professionals, teachers and foreign students. This April, Trump issued a proclamation suspending some economic immigration as part of measures aimed at assisting the domestic job market during the coronavirus pandemic.  A lawsuit challenging the legality of the order is pending.  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.  Baraputri, who co-hosts a weekly news program for the VOA Indonesian service, said it is much easier to cover issues deemed sensitive in Indonesia from the U.S.  As well as losing their jobs, the journalists are forced to return on flights during the coronavirus pandemic. In Baraputri’s case, she will have to pay for two weeks in a hotel as a quarantine measure before returning to her multigenerational home in Jakarta.  

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