This editorial first appeared in the Kodiak Daily Mirror:
Two weeks ago, the U.S. State Department announced it is delaying implementation of changes to the J-1 visa program until November.
That program brings hundreds of transient workers — international students on summer break — to Kodiak each year. Under the new program, those students will not be allowed to work in fish plants.
Processors reacted strongly to the proposal, which was scheduled to be implemented this spring. That would not have given them enough time to arrange for alternative hires.
Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich responded promptly to those concerns, encouraging the State Department to postpone the changes. They reeled in the results May 4 with the State Department announcement.
We agree with the decision to delay, but we encourage the State Department to stick to its November timeline.
Processors may protest, but one only has to look at national unemployment figures, and in particular youth unemployment figures, to see that we must encourage local and national employment first.
Last summer, processors expected a big salmon harvest. When that harvest came in below expectations, many J-1 workers were left without jobs, straining Kodiak food banks and shelters.
Alaskan and American workers are mobile — if a harvest comes in below expectations, they can move to where the jobs are. International workers on temporary visas are far more limited.
Processors have said it is difficult to find American workers willing to work long hours in fish plants during the summer. That’s true, but only because processors have become reliant upon the J-1 program.
Before the J-1 program became dominant, fish plants used hundreds of college students as peak-season labor.
If it is difficult to find summer labor, it is only because the hiring and recruiting processes that brought those students to Alaska have atrophied, not because young Americans are unwilling to work hard.
There are hundreds of thousands of college students across the country. Surely Alaska can find a few hundred willing to work.
Begich has proposed an H2O visa specifically for fish processing workers. It’s good to have a senator devoted to fisheries issues, but the priority should be hiring Alaskans and Americans, not finding a new way to bring in international workers.
If the J-1 changes are allowed to go into effect in November, Alaska processors will have months to prepare and find alternative hiring methods.
This summer, J-1 workers will return to Kodiak for a season of work.