WASHINGTON - Within 24 hours, Thai journalist Warangkana Chomchuen went from arranging virtual farewells with friends and colleagues and finalizing plans to leave the U.S. with her wife and cat, to hearing she could continue working in the U.S. for at least 30 days.
In a last-minute reprieve, the State Department stepped in and granted a special extension to Chomchuen’s J-1 visa that means the VOA Thai service journalist can return to work until August 23, while waiting to hear if the United States Agency for Global Media will approve her renewal application.
The reprieve gives temporary relief to Chomchuen, who worked for NBC News and The Wall Street Journal before leaving Bangkok to join VOA last year. But questions remain about the status of the review of J-1 visas – the entry permit for individuals with unique skills – that USAGM management announced earlier this month.
“It’s quite overwhelming,” Chomchuen, who goes by the name Waan, said Friday afternoon, when she returned to work. “My team have been pulling more weight these past weeks while I was gone, so I wanted to jump in and help.”
“Some furniture had been sold, but I still have my bed and desk. So for now I will be here,” she said.
USAGM, which oversees Voice of America and four other networks, said July 9 that it was conducting a case-by-case assessment of J-1 renewal applications. The chief executive is responsible for giving the final approval for visa renewals submitted by the broadcasters.
A USAGM spokesperson said in a statement at the time that the visa review was aimed at improving agency management, protecting U.S. national security and ensuring that hiring authorities are not misused.
A firewall mandated by law protects the editorial independence and decisions of the networks.
The announcement of a review of the renewal process came when Chomchuen had already entered the 30-day grace period J-1 holders have to remain in the U.S. after a work visa expires.
An initial understanding that the agency could still renew her visa during this period was found this week to be inaccurate. State Department officials told the agency that because of the specialist status of J-1s granted to USAGM, visas cannot be issued if the renewal deadline is missed.
In VOA, 76 journalists are J-1 holders, with 35 who will need a renewal before the end of the year. Currently, 14 visa renewal requests are waiting on approval from USAGM management, including Chomchuen’s and at least one other journalist whose visa expired.
The USAGM did not respond to VOA’s request for comment.
In a message to staff Friday, VOA acting director Elez Biberaj said the broadcaster was in regular contact with USAGM to push the importance “of continuing the services of our talented visa holders.”
“We are working hard to ensure that USAGM leadership understands the vital role that each individual plays in producing VOA content and supporting our mission,” Biberaj said via email.
Several journalists whose J-1 visas expire in coming weeks said they were anxious about how the delays would affect their work status, and whether USAGM’s newly installed chief executive, Michael Pack, would approve the documents.
Some cited fears about having to leave the U.S., including traveling abroad during a pandemic, finding work during an economic downturn or even returning to a country they have not lived or worked in for many years.
The renewal process delays also come as teams are ramping up coverage for the U.S. elections alongside coverage of the coronavirus pandemic and protests against racial injustice and police brutality.
News that Chomchuen will be able to resume work for now was met with relief by the head of the Thai service, Rattaphol Onsanit.
“It’s a welcome development,” Onsanit said. “Waan is such an asset to the team. She’s talented, very disciplined, very smart. Consider that with her journalistic skills. We’re very lucky to have her.”
Chomchuen brought expertise and specialized skills to the Thai service that would be hard to find elsewhere, Onsanit said.
“I respect the stand that visa extension requests should be thoroughly reviewed,” Onsanit said, adding that while the ultimate outcome was still uncertain, he hoped a long-term solution would be found.
“J-1 visa employees at VOA Thai [are what] drive our results, help us expand into a very competitive market in a country where it is very important [as] freedom of press in Thailand is not in great shape,” he said.
Onsanit said he provided information to try to help top management make a decision, including references from Chomchuen’s former colleagues and bosses, who vouched for her journalistic skill and integrity.
The impact the visa delays may have on coverage was raised by journalists from other divisions. Some questioned how regular programming that relies on teams of mainly J-1 visa holders would be affected if more visas expire. The journalists asked for anonymity because of their visa status.
These broadcasts are often aired in countries with limited access to independent news coverage and where affiliate stations use content. In some cases, the programs were granted additional congressional funding.
Within VOA, Onsanit said, everyone has been working hard to resolve Chomchuen’s case.
Lack of information
Journalists in other divisions however, said attempts to get answers from higher management on visa renewals were met with silence.
At least two said supervisors told them this week that requests for updates from USAGM management went unanswered and that the journalists should consider seeking legal advice on their immigration status.
Some said that the silence made it hard for J-1 holders to have time to make alternative plans or seek legal advice on alternative ways to remain working as a journalist in the U.S.
The issue of visa renewals was raised at a Helsinki Commission hearing Thursday, where witnesses called for a congressional hearing into changes implemented by Pack.
Because of the important role J-1 holders at VOA play and the potential repercussions some could face, USAGM should prioritize visa approvals, Gabe Rottman, director of the technology and press freedom project at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, told VOA.
“When it comes to the USAGM, these broadcasters provide crucial language and local expertise that is difficult to replace," he said, adding that by not renewing the visas the agency would be “depriving broadcasters of their unique expertise.”