From Au Pair to Trafficking Survivor: The Exploitation of J1 Visa Holders

Apr 12, 2019 | by Shaina Fuller

Earlier this month, representatives from the U.S. Department of State met with NGOs in Chicago to discuss the J-1 Visa program. During the course of this conversation, NGOs provided feedback about the program and explored ways to improve it to prevent human trafficking.

In 2018, 8,974 people from all over the world entered the J-1 Cultural Exchange Visa Program. 341 sponsor organizations arranged for these participants to find opportunities for learning and work in the U.S. The program has 15 categories: Au Pair, Camp Counselor, College and University Student, Government Visitor, Intern, International Visitor, Physician, Professor, Research Scholar, Secondary School Student, Short-Term Scholar, Specialist, Summer Work Travel, Teacher, and Trainee. The USCIS states that exchange programs are “designed to promote the interchange or persons, knowledge, and skills, in the fields of education, arts, and science”.

Sponsors work with third party employers (usually via written agreement) to host exchange visitors and it is within this layered system that abuse can take place. There were 700 incidents last year alone in the J-1 program.

For example, in 2016, exchange visitors traveled to Florida with the promise of work in a yoga studio, only to arrive and find out the yoga studio did not exist. They were instead made to work in illicit massage businesses. Jeffrey Jason Cooper, the man responsible for recruiting the students from Kazakhstan into this scheme, was convicted of sex trafficking.

This program, like other visa programs, can be taken advantage of, which is why we felt like it was worth further exploration. This post is a deep dive into the J-1 visa program to discuss the various loopholes that may allow for human trafficking to take place.

How does one apply for this program? In order to be a part of the program, participants must first submit a DS-2019 form (Certificate of Eligibility for Exchange Visitor Status) which is provided by a sponsor. The sponsor is responsible for assisting the potential participant with collecting whatever documentation is needed to submit a DS-2019. Once the form is complete, participants can then apply for the J-1 Visa at a U.S. embassy or consulate. Family members of J-1 visa holders can receive J-2 classification and be authorized for work in the U.S. as well. 

86% of exchange visitors are 30 years old are younger. A J-1 visa is the “least expensive option” for high school students studying abroad in the U.S. Under this program, students are able to stay for one year and are housed with a volunteer host family. In the case that things are not going well between the student and the host family, moving the student to a different family is difficult.

Summer work travel (SWT) is one of the largest categories of J-1 visa holders. Freedom Network USA shares that the SWT program does not require sponsors or third-party employers to provide visa holders with an employment contract. While sponsors hold the responsibility to ensure participants are placed in fair employment situations, a lack of oversight and support can often leave individuals in the program hanging.

The Office of Exchange Coordination and Compliance (ECC) is designated to monitor sponsors and review complaints from participants. The primary concern of this office is the health, safety, and welfare of exchange visitors. They oversee the regulations of the program and have the authority to place sanctions on sponsors as well as enforce removal of a sponsor from the program.

It is the sponsors that handle paperwork for participants and arrangement for their placements for work. Sponsors are responsible for recording and reporting a program begin date for all exchange visitors. From the time an exchange visitor arrives in the U.S., the sponsor has 30 days to get in contact with them. In the case that contact with the exchange visitor cannot be made, the visitor is considered to have ‘no-show’ status. In these cases, it is possible ICE could step in since that visitor is no longer considered to be in the country legally.

Because the ECC Office deals directly with sponsors in the program, they are only able to take action against the sponsors if something goes wrong, not the third party organizations and employment agencies. This would be under the jurisdiction of local law enforcement. The ECC office is able to arrange new work placements for J-1 visitors as well as compel sponsors to provide back pay to participants. The ECC is allowed to visit housing locations and work sites and conduct inspections and remove participants if necessary.

But, the clear loophole here is that the bad actors are often the third party organizations and employment agencies, which ECC does not have direct oversight over.

The ECC office does have a J-1 visa helpline number that is available for folks to call. Sponsors are required to provide this number to participants. NGOs felt that perhaps providing this number in a pocket card format with other hotline information would be a useful tool for J-1 visa holders to have should something go wrong.

Currently, an exchange visitor can be moved to different sponsor but only in ‘extreme situations’. We know that by the time someone has been involved in a trafficking situation, it may be too late. NGOs at our meeting discussed the feasibility of making the J-1 visa designation portable across sponsors using a lower threshold than is being used currently so that J-1 visa holders would have options moving forward if a situation turned out to be a bad one.

Additionally, since consulates are involved in the vetting process for exchange visitors, continuing to educate consulates on human trafficking, requiring them to provide information and resources, and equipping them to be a place where participants in the J-1 visa program could reach out for help is important.

One of the ECC representatives shared that they have had J-1 visa holders in the past apply for both T and U visas. Right now, the ECC office has no built-in victim assistance program. All responsibility for the oversight and well-being of the exchange visitor is left in the hands of the sponsor. This creates a great need for other viable resources. NGOs and social service organizations can and should be resources for potential survivors in these situations.

To learn more about the J-1 Visa Program and the various sponsors in Illinois, visit


Educatius Group. (2019). J-1 or F-1 USA High School Program. Retrieved from

Freedom Network USA. (2018). Human Trafficking and J-1 Visas for Temporary Workers (Summer Work Travel Program). Retrieved from

USCIS. (2018). Exchange Visitors. Retrieved from

U.S. Department of Justice. (2016). Florida Man Convicted of Sex Trafficking in Connection with Human Trafficking Scheme Targeting Foreign University Students. Retrieved from

U.S. Department of State. (2018). Exchange Visitor Program – Facts and Figures. Retrieved from

U.S. Department of State. (2018). Exchange Visitor Program – Find Designated Sponsor Organizations. Retrieved from


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