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A few large multinational companies manage their own J-1 visa programs, but most employers work with sponsoring organizations when looking to bring foreign trainees and interns to the United States for talent development.
SHRM Online outlined the basic benefits and requirements of the J-1 visa program in Part 1 of this series of articles.
There are currently 96 trainee sponsors and 90 intern sponsors, the majority of which are third-party sponsoring organizations, independent of the host-employers themselves, according to the latest U.S. State Department information. The remaining designated sponsors are employers who have taken on their own programs.
Third-party sponsors are responsible for monitoring all aspects of the program, including orientation, placement and periodic evaluations to confirm compliance. They also support participants throughout their stay and ensure their health, safety and welfare.
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The State Department announced in 2017 that it would not approve any applications for new sponsors within the trainee and intern categories or expand the types of jobs for which existing sponsors have already been approved.
The current moratorium aside, whether employers decide to take on the responsibility of becoming a designated sponsor—or work with a sponsoring organization instead—depends on factors such as convenience, resources and cost, said Mike Jackson, manager of exchange visitor programs at the Council for Global Immigration (CFGI), an affiliate of the Society for Human Resource Management. "For a company, the quickest and most convenient option is to go through a third-party sponsor that already has the designation. The approval time for getting a designation can take a couple of years. Then there's the time and resources needed to set up the infrastructure connected with the program and in maintaining it, including complying with monitoring and reporting requirements."
Third-party sponsoring organizations have dedicated staff that regularly work with J-1 visa holders, understand visa regulations, and have experience onboarding them and getting them accustomed to a new country, said Jennifer Clinton, president and CEO of Cultural Vistas, a nonprofit exchange organization and J-1 visa sponsor based in New York City and Washington, D.C.
"For many employers, getting their own designation is just not feasible," Jackson added. "It might be an option to consider if you are looking at large volume intent or have existing immigration and mobility departments. You often see that the companies that have in-house J-1 programs have the infrastructure to handle a wide range of immigration categories."
Clinton and Jackson recommended that employers interested in using the program first determine what it is they want from it and then do their homework on what the various sponsoring organizations provide.
"Having an up-front conversation around business needs and being transparent about what you are trying to accomplish is important during that first outreach," Clinton said. "That's where we can help either reset expectations to make sure we are on the same page or reinforce expectations. We can tell employers that the J-1 is not the best option for them if they are coming at it for the wrong reasons." Some of those reasons could be recruiting J-1 visa holders for unauthorized occupations or for full-time positions that lack a training component.
Companies also need to research the specific requirements for the J-1 visa process and for working with various sponsoring organizations. "Sponsoring organizations are approved for different occupational categories," Jackson said. "Some sponsors have a broader range of categories than others." For example, CFGI isn't authorized to sponsor visa applicants working in the hospitality or tourism industries.
In addition, sponsoring organizations may have additional document and processing requirements of their own, and their processing times may vary.
"Doing the initial legwork to see what the process and fees are, and what types of occupations the particular organization can sponsor for or not, saves you frustration later," Jackson said.
One of the first things the host employer is responsible for is coming up with an individualized Training/Internship Placement Plan (Form DS-7002). The plan—agreed on by the sponsor and the employer and then signed by the sponsor, employer and trainee or intern—details the internship or training location, whether there will be rotations through different departments, specific job duties, skills to be learned, and the amount and manner of compensation.
"It's the most critical document for employers of J-1s," Jackson said. "It is a legal document, and the details are important. Supervisors must understand that they are signing legal attestations."
One of the biggest mistakes employers working with a sponsoring organization make is not thinking about the training plan early enough in the process, Jackson said. "Thinking through what the training is going to look like with the business unit as early as possible saves time down the line. Building out the different components—who will be supervising, what are the learning objectives—the earlier that process starts, the quicker it can be refined for sponsor approval."
For example, employers must show that they have the appropriate facilities and equipment and sufficient resources and staff to provide a minimum of 32 hours of work per week, as well as continuous onsite supervision of trainees and interns.
The document must also include plans for compensation, housing and cultural opportunities for trainees and interns.
The latter is important, Clinton said. "Employers want to make sure that the intent of the cultural exchange program is realized, and that HR takes an active role in planning for activities outside of the office that expose the participant to U.S. culture."
Employers sometimes overlook the requirement to notify the sponsor organization if there are any changes to the program—whether the changes involve training; compensation; supervisors; work location; or the health, safety or welfare of the participant or any dependents.
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