“I start looking around the house thinking, ‘How long does it take to sell a couch on craigslist? How long does it take to sell my wife's piano?’ Every day is weighing on us,” said Warangkana Chomchuen, who goes by Waan, a broadcast journalist for VOA’s Thai service.
But with her J-1 visa status in doubt, Chomchuen, an experienced journalist who has worked for NBC News and The Wall Street Journal, has a month to leave the country and her job, and be separated from her Canadian wife, with no idea when they will be reunited.
Chomchuen is one of several VOA journalists who were due to renew their J-1 visas — the entry permit for individuals with unique skills — who face possible deportation because of a decision by the U.S. Agency for Global Media to put J-1 visas under a case-by-case review.
“This is not like renting a U-Haul to New Jersey, right? We have to leave the country. We basically have to pack up one year’s worth of life,” she said, adding that the uncertainty of whether her visa will come before the 30-day grace period to leave is “nerve-wracking.”
The U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), which oversees Voice of America and four other networks, said Thursday that it was conducting a case-by-case assessment of J-1 renewal applications. VOA has 62 contractors and 14 full-time employees who are in the United States on J-1 visas. An unknown number of journalists at the other USAGM networks, which include Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, the Office of Cuba Broadcasting and Middle East Broadcasting Networks, are also affected.
The visa review at USAGM is part of the changes implemented since Michael Pack took up his appointment as chief executive officer. In Pack's first week, VOA’s director resigned and Pack fired the heads of the other entities, including the Open Technology Fund, appointed interim heads, and replaced the boards that govern those entities.
A USAGM spokesperson said in a statement that the visa review was aimed at improving agency management, protecting U.S. national security and ensuring that hiring authorities are not misused.
But journalists and groups including PEN America and the National Press Club have said the visa renewal delays could put many VOA journalists at risk of threats or arrest if forced to return to their home countries, might damage the broadcasters’ reputations abroad and would make it harder to cover the news for those regions, especially in an election year and with a global pandemic.
USAGM did not respond to follow-up questions and requests for comment sent via email Saturday. VOA requested that all questions regarding the J-1 visas be referred to USAGM.
A senior journalist at VOA familiar with the situation, who spoke on background, said the process for renewing J-1 visas is usually routine. Provided the requests are filed on time, there is rarely any issue, the journalist said.
VOA’s foreign journalists play an essential role, bringing specific skills that are hard to find within the U.S., the senior staff member said. The network relies not only on fluency in English and the service’s own language, but also on contacts and deep knowledge of the political situation and how to cover that for a local audience.
Each broadcast entity conducts a thorough interview and vetting process, including extensive background checks, when hiring, but nearly always it is clear that the foreign candidates selected for language service jobs have the skills needed, the senior member said.
New entries on J-1 visas are among several categories of 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. It is unclear if the ban affects renewals.
Not worried, initially
Chomchuen said she hadn’t been worried about the renewal because it was a process that many colleagues go through.
“Also, it was a pretty busy time,” Chomchuen said. “There was COVID-19, there was Black Lives Matter. There were protests in Washington, D.C., so I wasn't really thinking there was going to be a problem, and I was quite busy with the news coverage.”
It wasn’t until a meeting with the human resources department on June 25 that Chomchuen was told that Pack had not yet signed her visa.
“But I thought, OK, you know, the CEO, he just got his job in June. Maybe he was busy — there's a lot of things to do,” she said.
But by July 1, with no renewal, Chomchuen said she had no choice but to stop work and start making plans to leave the U.S.
For VOA, which broadcasts in 47 languages, the delays and possible loss of staff means disrupting the ability to cover U.S. and regional news for those audiences. Some of the journalists forced to return risk persecution in their home countries because of their reporting.
The coronavirus brings added concerns for the health of staff forced to return to their home countries if the visas aren’t renewed in time, and raises questions of how VOA will be able to work with foreign embassies, many still closed, to complete the visa process.
In Chomchuen’s case, she had to apply for a repatriation flight back to Bangkok via the Thai Embassy. Her wife, who is in the U.S. on a J-2 spouse visa, will have to drive back to her home city of Toronto. Thailand is prioritizing Thai nationals, so Chomchuen’s wife is not eligible for a repatriation flight.
Rights groups have condemned the delays, highlighting the risks some of these journalists will face if forced to return to their home countries.
“Many of these journalists have worked with VOA precisely because it offers them the opportunity to report stories that they cannot tell in their home countries without risk of severe punishment. If these journalists are forced to return home, some of them will be greeted with jail cells or worse,” Suzanne Nossel, the head of PEN America, said in a statement Thursday.
Not 'a good message'
While Chomchuen said she was unlikely to face safety issues in Thailand, “this kind of threat or security concerns are real for other foreign journalists for other services.”
She was concerned, however, with how the news would affect VOA abroad.
"It doesn’t send a good message to Thai people and our audience,” she said, adding that news of the visa delays had already spread.
Earlier this week, Pack defended his decisions in an opinion piece published in the New York Post, adding that the mainstream media coverage of the firings “was over the top.” The new CEO said he was appointed to “fix a nonpartisan mess” and was dedicated to “empowering our journalists around the world.”
The unnamed senior VOA journalist said the visa delay, coupled with the firing and resignations of directors at the agency following Pack’s arrival, risks damaging the broadcasters’ reputations abroad.
Local audiences are raising questions about what the changes mean and if it will affect VOA’s editorial independence, the journalist said.
The delays and potential loss of staff have also complicated planning news coverage in an election year.
“Our team was small to begin with,” Chomchuen said of the staffing of the Thai service. “We have eight people. Two of us are video journalists.”
Three of the Thai service members are in the U.S. on J-1 visas, and one of them faces a visa renewal in December.
“This will affect our ability to cover American news, policy features that take time and effort,” Chomchuen said.
Served as translator
Earlier this year, Chomchuen helped during a live broadcast of the U.S. president’s State of the Union speech with a simultaneous translation, a service the division planned to replicate during the U.S. election.
She was also working on reports about racial discrimination against Asians and Asian Americans in the U.S. during the pandemic, as well as pitching the idea for a news talk show for the service’s Facebook page.
“I think the program will help our audiences get an insight and analysis of important issues in the U.S., leading up to the elections,” Chomchuen said. “[But] those stories have been put on hold.”
If she is forced to leave the country, Chomchuen said, she and her wife will also lose the legal protections and recognition their marriage receives in the U.S.
“The nice thing about Voice of America and the U.S. is that when I got a job here, Voice of America would also take care of my wife’s visa as well,” she said. “To lose that and have to almost, like, fend for ourselves, individually, it's a bit daunting.”