The Voice of America building, Monday, June 15, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
The Voice of America building, Monday, June 15, 2020, in Washington.

Some 76 foreign journalists working for the Voice of America in Washington are facing the possibility that their visas, many of which expire this month, may not be renewed.

A spokesperson for the U.S. Agency for Global Media said Thursday that the agency is conducting a case-by-case assessment of J-1 renewal applications. The agency has 62 contractors and 14 full time employees who are in the United States on J-1 visas. An unknown number of journalists at other USAGM entities are also affected. 

So far none of the journalists seeking J-1 extensions appears to have been rejected outright. But at least one journalist’s deadline for an extension has passed, giving her until the end of the month to leave the U.S.  Other VOA journalists have a few weeks left before they could be forced to return to their home countries, where some fear retribution because of VOA’s reporting.

The USAGM spokesperson said the visa review is aimed at improving agency management, protecting U.S. national security and ensuring that hiring authorities are not misused.

J-1 visas are a category of non-immigrant entry permits for individuals with unique skills who are approved to participate in work-and study-based exchange visitor programs. They are typically issued for a period of several years and are subject to renewal or extension.  But the J-1 is also among several visas that were temporarily banned by the Trump Administration in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic, and because the administration believes such visa holders take jobs away from U.S. citizens.

Journalism groups including PEN America, the National Press Club and its Journalism Institute issued statements Friday expressing concern that declining to renew the visas could put the safety of those VOA journalists at risk.

Because of its mandate to provide high-quality professional journalism in more than 40 languages, VOA often struggles to find enough American citizens with the needed journalism and language skills to keep its programs on the air. In those cases it has long relied on individuals recruited from the target countries or new immigrants still working their way through the lengthy process of becoming American citizens.

VOA and other government agencies routinely scrutinize J-1 visa renewals, which are filed by the employer and submitted to the State Department. In the past, some foreign journalists at VOA have been forced to leave their jobs because their visa was not renewed.  It’s unclear how the USAGM process this year differs from past practice.

“To improve agency management and protect U.S. national security, it is imperative to determine that hiring authorities and personnel practices are not misused. As such, USAGM is undertaking a comprehensive, case-by-case assessment of personal services contractors (PSCs) who are J-1 visa holders,” the USAGM spokesperson’s statement said.  At the time of publication, USAGM had not responded to VOA’s inquiry about whether full time staff who hold J-1 visas are also subjected to this year’s review.

USAGM CEO Michael Pack was nominated by President Donald Trump to lead the agency more than two years ago. But with solid Democratic opposition to his appointment, his confirmation was held up until June.  Since his confirmation, the heads of the five media networks USAGM oversees have quit or been fired. Pack told the Washington Times in an interview this month that he is working to correct past mismanagement. 

“My plan here, and I think everybody in the White House and everybody else knows this, is to hold these agencies accountable to fulfilling their mission, and in [Voice of America’s] case, its charter, and that’s what I plan to do,” he told the newspaper.