Western Iowa Tech Community College in Sioux City is ending its J-1 visa program early because of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.
“Given the speed of spread and the number of countries experiencing community transmission, the college has evaluated the risks and believes suspending the program is an appropriate proactive measure that will protect the health and safety of the students,” WITCC said in a statement.
The college is arranging flights home for the exchange students from Chile and Brazil over the coming week. In an email to IPR, Andrea Rohlena, WITCC’s director of marketing and publications, said the end date of the J-1 program is March 18, “but the college is accommodating students who want to leave earlier.”
WTICC brought around 60 students on cultural exchange non-immigrant J-1 visas to Sioux City from Chile and Brazil last July and August, primarily to study culinary arts or robotics and automation. But WITCC struggled with its program.
A State Department review last year found numerous concerns and potential violations with the program: Students had been placed into internships at two local packing and manufacturing plants, Tur-Pak Foods Inc. and Royal Canin. They reported carrying heavy bags, working as line operators, cutting frozen meat, and in some cases, working 12-hour shifts at their internships. The State Department said the internships appeared to fill a labor need rather than benefiting their education. It labeled these internships as “unskilled occupations”, which are prohibited under the J-1 visa program that WITCC was participating in.
The University of Iowa also has students on J-1 visas. Anne Bassett, a spokeswoman for the university, said in an email that the university is not ending its J-1 program.
“In fact, the State Department has reached out to the UI and other programs across the country to ensure that any curricular changes don’t adversely affect the program objectives of our J-1 exchange visitors,” Bassett said.
In an email to IPR, Iowa State University spokeswoman Angie Hunt pointed to the college’s web page of frequently asked questions about COVID-19. The university said its move to online classes will not affect students’ immigration status.
“The Student and Exchange Visitor Program and U.S. Department of State have said they support schools taking necessary measures to keep students safe, including online delivery of classes,” the web page reads.
The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Iowa reached 22 as of Sunday. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds announced late Saturday that there is community spread of COVID-19 in Iowa.