Foreigners grabbing too many jobs

Posted: Sunday, May 30, 2004

I chuckled reading a recent Associated Press article reporting that J-1 is in love. J-1 is a giant Pacific octopus. He was joined recently by Aurora, a female octopus, and if the couple produces little octopuses, aquarists at the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward will be as proud as the 16-limbed new parents.

Another J-1 story is not such good news. It is taking jobs away from resident Alaskans. Some recruiters and employers who promote easy-to-get jobs in Alaska should be ashamed.

The problem is the J-1 student visa. Foreign workers are recruited openly, told they can work in Alaska as "students" on a J-1 student visa.

A Seattle company and other recruiters on the Internet are bending or ignoring J-1 student visa rules. Money is leaving Alaska and the U.S. as paychecks go offshore.

Recruiters are awarding jobs in seafood processing and tourism and hospitality to J-1 visa workers that should be going to Alaskans who apply at our network of Alaska Job Centers.

The income denied to Alaska families is significant. Gross earnings with overtime for an entry-level seafood-processing worker, paid hourly for the three months of June through August, averages more than $8,200.

But as of now, the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development can't do much until an employer gets caught violating wage and hour, overtime or other state regulations.

I believe in helping our friends and neighbors overseas but my first responsibility is to help Alaska families. It's time to put a stop to wages earned in Alaska being spent overseas.

The Bureau of Consular Affairs in the U.S. Department of State issues J-1 student visas. Applicants are encouraged to study in the U.S., "to teach or do research at institutions of higher learning."

But search government job recruitment Web site till the cows come home - I don't think you'll find a student visa category that includes entry-level jobs in seafood processing and resort hotels.

To compound the student visa mess the State Department also issues J-2 visas. These allow J-1 spouses and even minor children to "accept employment in the U.S."

The Alaska Hire Initiative is a centerpiece of Gov. Frank Murkowski's priority agenda for resource, economic and energy development.

The governor has encouraged Alaska employers to pledge to achieve a 90 percent or greater resident Alaskan workforce. The response has been quick, all across Alaska, and gratifying.

More than 1,100 companies and organizations have been certified as achieving 90-percent-plus Alaska hire. Many have achieved a resident workforce exceeding 95 percent with several at 100 percent.

The Murkowski administration is working hard to increase Alaska hire. But Web site like this one from Seattle continue to distort the facts:

"Find your Alaska job through," they claim. "(We are) located within a few miles of the corporate offices of ... major Alaska fishing companies and ... cruise line corporate offices."

They add, "Roughly 57 percent of these jobs are filled by nonresidents of the state. Excellent earning potential! Free transportation often provided! Free or subsidized room and board! And more!"

Some employers claim they didn't know about the State Department warning that J-1 student visa applicants "must demonstrate to the consular officer that they have binding ties to a residence in a foreign country which they have no intention of abandoning ... ."

Appearing before the U.S. House late in 2001, Michael Becraft, acting deputy commissioner for the Immigration and Naturalization Service, testified that neither the State Department nor the INS knows how many foreign students actually enroll, drop out or remain in the U.S. illegally.

We need effective federal action to enforce a student visa system that is tough and realistic. Sure, it will mean more work for government agencies. But that's a small price to pay to support Alaska hire and strengthen national security.

• Greg O'Claray is the commissioner of Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development.

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