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The Growing Relevance Of The J-1 Visa

by Melany Hamner

In a global climate where diplomatic relations and foreign affairs heavily influence a country’s peace and prosperity, the Department of State views the J-1 visa primarily as a tool of diplomacy. In practice the visa is used for a variety of reasons including career advancement, to fill holes in the labor market, to enable international work force mobility and to provide learning opportunities. Regardless of the type of program that the J-1 visa supports, it has one purpose: To promote cultural and educational exchange. In an increasingly global society, the J-1 visa Exchange Visitor Program continues to prove its relevance and has grown immensely over the years despite economic and political setbacks.

For the past two decades, the number of J-1 visas issued each year has more than doubled from 139,354 in 1989 to 359,447 in 2008. During that time the J-1 visa has, for the most part, enjoyed steady growth aside from the 2001 through 2004, when poor economic conditions and national security policy drastically impacted exchange.

The J-1 Exchange Visitor Program experienced modest growth in the early 90’s as the U.S. economy plunged into a recession due to increasing oil prices, rising interest rates and the lack of available credit. From 1989 through 1996 the number of J-1 visas issued grew 23%. A few years later, in the mid 90s, U.S. policy that aimed to protect the American-born worker prompted a crackdown on illegal immigrants and moved to limit the rights of noncitizen immigrants. The policy had little direct affect on the J-1 visa, however, and foreign nationals continued to apply and be accepted for J-1 programs in large numbers. The resurgence of the J-1 visa in the mid 90s was fueled by a rebounding economy and a steadily declining unemployment rate. As a result, the quantity of J-1 visas issued grew 53% from 1996 to 2001.

This rapid growth came to a sharp halt in 2001, with two factors playing a key role. 2001 ushered in the end of a long period of economic growth that had been fueled by an investment boom in the IT sector. The economy sank into another recession and by July 2003 unemployment had risen to 6.3%. Just after the burst of the dot-com bubble, the terrorist attacks on September 11th spurred the passing of a series of legislative acts establishing more effective systems to screen and monitor foreign nationals visiting the United States. The Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS), was created to better monitor and track exchange visitors, specifically those in J-1 programs, as well as the F and M student visas. Also, vigorous background checks were administered in higher frequency and wait times for visa approvals increased considerably. Immediately after these changes were initiated in 2003 the number of applicants refused a J-1 visa jumped to 16% of total applicants as opposed to only 11% in 2002.  As a consequence of both events, the number of J-1 visas issued decreased slightly and then hit a plateau at around 250,000 visas issued per year until 2005.

In 2004 Economic growth once again took hold, just as applications for the J-1 visa began to pick up speed. From 2004 to 2008, the number of J-1 visas issued grew by 41%. This increase was due to a steep economic growth rate that fell off at the end of 2007. The U.S. economy has since slipped into a deep recession and the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate soared to 9.4% in May 2009 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Poor economic conditions predict a sharp decline in growth rate for the J-1 visa in 2009. However a second force, public policy, must also be considered. In January 2009, when Barack Obama took office, his administration took a different stance on diplomacy and foreign affairs from the previous administration. President Obama requested a large increase in the 2010 budgeted spending, including $633 million allocated for State Department educational and cultural exchanges (J-1 programs). Going above President Obama’s request, the Senate Appropriations Committee recently stated in a press release that upon approval of the FY 2010 Department of State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs Appropriations bill, State Department educational and cultural exchange programs will be granted $635.2 million in FY 2010, $97.2 million above the FY 2009. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), the Chairman of the Department of States and Foreign Operations Subcommittee stated that, “This bipartisan bill goes a long way to enhance the capacity of the Department of State and U.S. Agency for International Development to carry out diplomacy and development programs in areas of critical importance to the United States…”

An impending budget increase in addition to the rhetoric of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggest that Washington aims to improve foreign relations by establishing new programs and bolstering existing ones to facilitate cultural and educational exchange. As these initiatives start to take effect and as the economy begins its recovery, the J-1 visa is expected to once again continue on its path of growth, offering more opportunities for diplomacy, career enhancement, work place diversity, and academic advancement while supporting our country on its way to achieving a higher level of Global awareness and understanding.


All statics regarding the number of J-1 visas issued and refused were gathered from the U.S. Department of State website The information for the article was primarily gathered from the following sites:    

About The Author

Melany Hamner is currently the Director of Global Current. It is a division and registered DBA of AIESEC United States, a J-1 visa sponsor designated by the US Department of State to oversee training and internship programs in a variety of occupational categories. Founded in 1952 in New York City, AIESEC United States has helped thousands of law firms and organizations obtain J-1 visas for their foreign national trainees and interns.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.