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Bay Area Non-Profit Helping To Bring Foreign Students To US Reeling Over J-1 Visa Suspension

SAN RAFAEL (KPIX) - International students who want to study and work in the United States are no longer welcome due to Trump administration crackdown on visas. The order has impacted some Americans, too.

Tom Areton and his wife fell so in love with the relationships they built as host families to foreign exchange students that they decided to create a non-profit organization to help bring young adults to America to learn about the culture.

This year Cultural Homestay International, in San Rafael, will celebrate its 40th anniversary. But there is little to celebrate right now.

CHI has helped bring 300,000 students and young adults through its exchange programs to the United States. The program allows participants to learn about the American culture by living with host families while going to school, traveling and working in the U.S.

Those who come here must apply for a J-1 visa.

Last month, President Trump suspended certain work visas, and included the J-1. The president's goal was to prevent Americans from competing with foreigners for jobs as unemployment numbers increase during the pandemic.

"I really feel that the administration made an error," Areton said. "J visas are actually not work visas, they are cultural visas, they are part of our administration's public diplomacy."

According to the Department of State which oversees J-1 visas, the visas offer "cultural and educational exchange opportunities in the United States through a variety of programs," including work-and study-based exchange visitor programs.

Areton interprets the work component of the visa as allowing students or young adults to earn money in order to pay their travel fees to come to the U.S. and return home.

"The impact is just tremendous, not only because our host families cannot host, but (our) summer camps cannot receive camp counselors," Areton said. "For each camp counselor we do not bring, 10 American children cannot attend the camp."

Areton said he was forced to let go of employees.

"I had people who were with us for 20, 30 years and they were weeping in my office," he said. "This was really, really hard, I mean my heart was bleeding."

Marian Heinkel has hosted three different high school exchange students through CHI.

Although exchange students who have the only intention of attending schools or universities in the U.S. are not impacted by the suspension, Heinkel said she was devastated when she heard about the suspension.

She said the teens she hosted have become a part of her family.

"I just feel like they're my sons. They feel like I'm their second mom. They're part of the family," Heinkel said. "The goal is for the students to come here to experience life as an American student."

Areton said the suspension will either force non-profit organizations like his to disappear or struggle significantly.

"It was a tremendous shock," Areton said.

The suspension expires on December 31, but it can be extended.

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