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Chinese Reporters in the U.S. Left Uncertain by Political Spat

Yuhui Chai came to the United States from China more than a dozen years ago, drawn by the country’s vibrant democratic values. She eventually found work as a journalist, relishing the chance to pursue hard-hitting stories and ask questions in a manner often discouraged in China’s authoritarian society.

Now Ms. Chai is among more than 100 Chinese news media employees in the United States caught in a heated dispute between Beijing and Washington over the rights of foreign journalists. Unable to secure a long-term visa amid new American restrictions, she has decided to leave her job this week to return to China.

“There’s no way to plan for the future,” said Ms. Chai, a New York-based correspondent who covers technology for SunTV, a Hong Kong news outlet. “It’s very painful.”

As the United States and China fight a broader geopolitical struggle over trade, technology, military policy, the coronavirus and other issues, the news media from both countries are caught in the middle.

The American government has put new limits on the number of employees at Chinese state media organizations, effectively forcing some to leave, and shortened the length of visas for Chinese media workers. China has expelled 17 foreign journalists, including some from The New York Times, and frozen the credentials of several others.

China in particular has long harassed and surveilled foreign journalists on its soil, but the new round of tit-for-tat restrictions risks cutting off a critical source of insight into both Chinese and American societies. American journalists in China have traditionally provided an important window into the country’s opaque government.

Chinese journalists in the United States, especially those working for commercial outlets, can play a role, too. While the majority of Chinese journalists in the United States work for the Chinese government’s flagship news outlets, including Xinhua and China Central Television, others represent more commercially minded organizations that strive to produce in-depth journalism. Though they have to abide by China’s strict censorship rules, they can help balance out the Communist Party’s propaganda machine back home.

The Trump administration says a tough approach is necessary to force Beijing to ease pressure on foreign news outlets. Critics argue the new rules are undermining America’s reputation as a bastion of civil liberties and giving Beijing an excuse to crack down on foreign news outlets even more.

“It has done huge damage to the ideals of freedom of the press and free speech,” said Yik Chan Chin, a lecturer in media and communication studies at the Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University in Suzhou, China. “All these concepts have been significantly damaged during this war.”

Many of the Chinese journalists affected by the new restrictions came to the United States to escape severe controls on the news media in China, where journalists are routinely harassed, punished and imprisoned. Under Xi Jinping, China’s top leader, the government has all but eliminated investigative reporting and demanded media workers show unflinching loyalty to the party.

Now, faced with visa hassles and growing scrutiny of their work in the United States, some are considering changing jobs. Others are making plans to return home, saying in interviews they are tired of being seen as spies and propaganda workers.

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Credit…Andrea Verdelli/Getty Images

The Trump administration has sought to portray Chinese reporters in the United States as foreign agents, designating nine Chinese news organizations as operatives of the Chinese state. David R. Stilwell, a top State Department official, said in a speech last week that workers at state-run outlets “masquerade as legitimate news reporters when their real business is propaganda and espionage.”

Chinese reporters say that portrayal is too simple. The more commercially minded outlets have somewhat more freedom in what they write or broadcast than official government outlets like Xinhua.

“In this age of great divides, it’s more important than ever to hear from more people,” said Du Chen, a reporter for a Chinese technology news site who left the United States earlier this year and has been unable to obtain a visa to return.

Mr. Du said smaller Chinese outlets in the United States have played an important role in dispelling stereotypes. “It still is very crucial to keep these journalists on the ground in U.S.,” he said, “if the U.S. government prefers a meaningful exchange of ideas rather than propaganda wars.”

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Credit…Gilles Sabrié for The New York Times

In a move seemingly aimed at avoiding an escalation, American officials said this week they would allow Chinese journalists whose visas have expired to remain in the United States and apply to have their stays extended. Many are still awaiting word from the Department of Homeland Security on renewal applications they submitted months ago.

China remains angered by a decision from the Trump administration in May to limit visas for Chinese journalists to 90 days, a significant downgrade from the open-ended visas they used to receive. The Chinese Foreign Ministry this week accused the United States of subjecting Chinese journalists to “political persecution and suppression,” and vowed to take retaliatory measures.

China has already stopped renewing press credentials for several foreign reporters still in the mainland, raising the possibility of further expulsions. State-run news outlets have suggested Beijing could seek to impose limits on foreign journalists working in Hong Kong, a former British colony that has traditionally respected press freedoms, if the situation continues to escalate.

American officials, in response, say the Chinese government has ignored their requests to ease pressure on foreign news outlets. They have called on Chinese officials to reinstate reporters from The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and The Times who were expelled earlier this year. The expelled reporters have no ties to government institutions or the Trump administration.

“Beijing’s actions prove time and again that the C.C.P. is afraid of independent and investigative media reporting,” a spokesman for the American embassy in Beijing said in a statement this week, referring to the Chinese Communist Party.

An agreement between the United States and China to ease tensions on the news media, while still elusive, could eventually lay the groundwork for more cooperation between the two countries, experts say.

A compromise could help reduce friction between the two countries at a tense moment, said Jerome A. Cohen, a New York University law professor and an expert on China.

“These steps will set the tone for the series of broader compromises that have to be attempted regarding more major issues,” Mr. Cohen said, pointing to climate change, trade, arms control and other challenges.

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Credit…Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

For Chinese journalists, the sharp deterioration in relations has been dispiriting.

Many say they have appreciated the chance to report in a relatively free environment on a variety of contentious issues, such as politics, religion and ethnic divisions — subjects that are typically restricted in China.

“I feel myself breathing again in an open society,” said Helen Zhang, a journalist from China who works in the United States. “Chinese journalism is not dead, but homeless.”

Ms. Chai, the reporter for SunTV, said she is considering leaving journalism once she returns to China, in part because of limits on free speech there. She said she worries the United States is isolating itself by making it harder for foreigners to report in the country.

“The United States should be giving positive messages to those who support democracy and freedom, instead of punishing everyone,” she said. “If your policies are driven by fear, driven by a kind of hostility, that creates very big problems.”

Albee Zhang contributed research.

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Indians Firms May Benefit From Trump’s H-1B Limits

When President Trump suspended a raft of visa programs in June, including temporary permits for highly technical foreign workers known as H-1B visas, he portrayed the order as a victory for the American work force. Further overhauls were in the works, he said weeks later, “so that no American worker is replaced ever again.”

The order is now in front of the courts, after a judge on Thursday blocked the order and ruled that Mr. Trump had overstepped his authority. The move will allow some companies, like Microsoft and Exxon Mobil, to bring temporary workers into the United States again. The issue will now go to an appeals court, which may rule in favor of Mr. Trump’s sweeping order.

But the fate of the program still remains in doubt. The Department of Homeland Security has submitted a new regulation for federal review that would toughen H-1B eligibility and impose new obligations on the companies trying to bring in foreign workers.

The uncertainty has thrown the plans of major companies in doubt and has already disrupted the lives of thousands of foreign workers, particularly those from India, who claim more than two-thirds of the H-1B visas issued each year.

The confusion might all be in vain, however. Experts say restrictions will do little to accomplish their stated goal of encouraging companies to hire Americans instead of workers from abroad. In fact, limits on H-1B visas may have the unintended effect of spurring American companies to shift even more work abroad.

Already, Indian outsourcing companies are working to cast the new restrictions as an opportunity to do just that.

“In America, there is a genius mix of homegrown and transplanted talent. The high level of global competition gives America its tech edge,” said Sandeep Kishore, the chief executive officer of Zensar Technologies, an Indian firm that employs more than 9,500 people globally.

More than 400 are on work visas in Zensar’s offices in the United States, he said, but more work could drift to India if companies cannot hire who they want.

The United States “risks giving up its edge,” Mr. Kishore said. “If we can’t bring this talent into the U.S., we’ll place them in our offices overseas.”

The pandemic, which has forced millions to work from home, could reinforce the idea that more American jobs can be done remotely.

The June suspension did not affect the foreign workers already in the United States on H-1B visas. But it upended the lives of those who were outside the country when the president issued his suspension.

Sonal Thakkar, a lead consultant at an Indian information technology firm in San Jose, Calif., rushed back to India last year to apply for an extension of her visa.

In March, her visa interview was canceled after India’s government imposed a nationwide lockdown to stop the coronavirus. Then, Mr. Trump’s suspension came.

This week, Ms. Thakkar received an email from the office of the U.S. Consulate General in Mumbai, saying her visa application had been “refused” and sent for “mandatory administrative processing.” It’s a process that could take months and she fears she could still be denied a visa after that.

Now, Ms. Thakkar is not sure when she can return to the United States and her husband, who is still in San Jose on an H-1B visa.

“I can’t sleep at night,” she said. “We’ve been together for six years. I am losing so many memories and I’m unable to create new ones.”

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Credit…Sonal Thakkar

An executive at Infosys, one of India’s biggest technology companies, said in a LinkedIn post that it arranged a chartered flight to bring back more than 200 workers and their families to India, after their American visas expired. The company declined to comment.

Even before Mr. Trump’s election, limiting the H-1B program had won some bipartisan support. The program allows companies to bring in well-educated or technically skilled workers from abroad temporarily. About 65,000 candidates are selected each year by lottery. The workers can bring their families, but they must apply for green cards separately if they want to remain in the United States once their work ends.

Some labor groups say companies use the program to bring in cheap labor. Often, they say, H-1B visa holders are not stars in their fields but hold skills that can be easily found domestically.

“There are very few people in this world who are truly innovative, and our economy depends on them,” said Russell Harrison, the director of government relations for the IEEE-USA, an association representing more than 170,000 technology professionals that supports H-1B restrictions.

Sensitive to the criticism, Indian outsourcing companies have long stressed plans to hire in the United States. In early September, Infosys announced it would hire 12,000 more Americans over the next two years.

Indian outsourcing companies dominated the H-1B lottery a decade ago, but sponsors now include some of the biggest names in American technology. Seven of the top 10 sponsors last year were American, including Amazon and Google, according to official citizenship data. About 15 percent of Facebook’s employees are H-1B holders.

If the government considerably limits the number of H-1B workers they can bring in, companies may send the work overseas instead.

“The work will go to India more because there is an abundance of high-quality college-educated tech labor in India,” said William Lazonick, an economist and professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, who has studied the globalization of business. “It is obviously an advantage if that higher-quality labor force is less expensive to employ than workers in the company’s home country.”

Research is scant, but at least one study has found that limits on H-1B visas lead to more hiring overseas. The study, by Britta Glennon, an assistant professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School, compared periods of tightened H-1B restrictions with hiring by major firms and found greater hiring in places like China and India, which have a large pool of skilled workers, and Canada, which has looser immigration policies.

Like industries around the globe, the outsourcing business took a substantial hit during the coronavirus pandemic. The troubles were particularly acute in India, where many workers lack the equipment or the internet connections to work from home.

Tech companies struggled to source hundreds of thousands of laptops in the early weeks of the pandemic. They sent desktop computers to workers’ homes and enabled firewalls to fend off cyberattacks.

At Tata Consultancy Services, India’s largest information technology firm with more than 400,000 workers globally, these responsibilities fell on the shoulders of Amit Jain, the global head of I.T. infrastructure, based in Mumbai.

Mr. Jain, who worked at the company for 32 years, died in March after suffering a heart attack.

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Credit…The Jain family.

“He was overworked and extremely exhausted,” said his brother, Mukul Jain. “He told me he hadn’t slept in two to three days because he was helping employees in India, Europe and the U.S. to work from home.”

T.C.S. declined to comment about Mr. Jain’s death. A public relations firm that represents the company said that about 95 percent of T.C.S. employees were now working remotely.

Now India’s outsourcing companies are seeing their results stabilize. Share prices have risen as investors bet that companies looking to trim costs and reduce head count seek their services.

Indeed, companies have resumed looking toward outsourcing companies. In July, Vanguard, the mutual fund company, said it struck a deal with Infosys of India to assume 1,300 back office positions, like record keeping and technology services. Workers would be offered comparable jobs at Infosys, said a spokeswoman for Vanguard, adding that the decision was unrelated to the pandemic or the shifts in the H1-B program.

India’s outsourcing companies face long-term challenges. Cutting-edge technologies like artificial intelligence could eventually take over some of their tasks. The companies themselves are trying to move up the value chain to do more of the innovative technology work done in Silicon Valley and China.

“Most of the larger Indian I.T. companies haven’t expanded in that direction. They haven’t expanded to semiconductors, e-commerce, gaming and other technologies,” said Nitin Soni, a Singapore-based analyst and senior director at Fitch Ratings, a credit rating firm. “They have stuck to their core strengths, which are all in the realm of automation of organizational stuff.”

But companies rethinking the future of the office could offer them new opportunities.

“If you can get the same or better talent at lower cost, which allows you to do your business 24 hours, then that’s a good value proposition,” said Ajay Gupta, Mumbai-based partner at global consulting firm Kearney.

Of traditional offices, he added, “even companies within India are saying, ‘We don’t need this rigid infrastructure.’”

Vindu Goel contributed reporting from Berkley, Calif.

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The Great Au Pair Rush

When the au pair decided to change families, she feared she was taking a major risk.

Since the fall, the Colombian woman in her mid-20s had been working in New York as an au pair, one of about 20,000 young people — mostly women — who come to the United States each year to live with families and take care of their children. Her yearlong contract wasn’t set to expire until late 2020, but one morning in mid-June, an argument with her host dad proved to be the breaking point of a tense home environment in quarantine.

“I can’t take these people anymore,” the au pair texted me in Spanish. “I want to get out of here today.” She reported the situation to her local coordinator and decided to leave, giving her two weeks to find a new family or return to Colombia. She hadn’t the slightest clue where she would end up next.

But the woman’s anxiety turned to surprise a few days later when she checked her email — she already had dozens of families across the country asking for interviews. Normally, the demand for au pairs already in the United States is not nearly as high, but something had changed: On June 22, the Trump administration issued an executive order suspending many foreign work visas at least until the end of this year. The order included the J-1 visa program, under which the au pair program, managed by the State Department, is categorized.

While the coronavirus pandemic had already made international travel difficult for many, the visa restrictions confirmed that new au pairs preparing to come to the United States wouldn’t be able to enter the country. The American families expecting them, often with working parents relying on the program as their primary source of child care, have been left scrambling to find replacements.

I spoke to nearly a dozen au pairs now in the country, and read the testimonies of many more on social media. They asked that their names not be used for this story, because they feared retaliation.

Many host parents have taken to unofficial forums on Facebook and other sites as an additional way to search for potential matches. That has created a frenzied social-media rush to woo the dwindling number of au pairs in the country who are still available.

“Pretty much everyone is saying it’s pretty unlikely that you’ll get an au pair,” said Erin Burkhart, a high-school teacher and two-time host mom in the Seattle area whose most recent au pair was set to join her family this summer from Germany. “The search process itself is a full-time job. Right now I will email everyone, I will reach out to everyone. I’ve had about 15 video chats in the last week.”

On the other end, while au pairs entering the program might speak with only two or three families in the initial interview process, in-country candidates are now hearing from 10, 20, sometimes closer to 50 prospective families. Even male au pairs, who often find it harder to match, are having an easy time. “Because they know they don’t have options, they are accepting males for their families too,” said an au pair from Brazil. “It’s not a big deal anymore.”

“Now we feel powerful,” the Colombian au pair said. “For once, we have a choice.”

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Credit…Audra Melton for The New York Times

Though administered by the State Department, the au pair program is operated by a network of private agencies (Cultural Care, Au Pair Care and Au Pair in America are a few big ones) that are in charge of vetting and matching au pairs with host families before they even set foot in the United States. On the ground, au pairs and host families deal more directly with local child care consultants, or L.C.C.s — regional counselors for the agencies who oversee day-to-day issues that arise in households.

If an in-country au pair wants to rematch, or switch families later on, her request must first be approved by the L.C.C. and the match ultimately approved by the agency.

But many introductory conversations are often carried out via unofficial channels — Facebook, WhatsApp and personal referrals between au pairs and families — to streamline the process. In recent weeks, these unofficial networks have become inundated.

Many in-country au pairs are now telling interested hosts that they are only willing to match in exchange for certain assurances, such as a personal car or payment upward of $400 a week. The minimum stipend for au pairs is $195.75 a week for a maximum of 45 hours of work, which is set by the State Department.

Host families have taken note of the new dynamic, too: Perusing some Facebook groups in mid-June, I found posts announcing benefits like unlimited public transportation passes, new cars, access to beach houses and skydiving trips, and double the pay. “We’re offering a 2000 USD sign-on bonus,” one parent wrote.

Not all host families are advertising perks, though, and not all au pairs are seeking them out. Coming from difficult working conditions with her first host family — including verbal abuse, additional chores like housecleaning and dog-grooming, and long hours for no extra pay — the Colombian au pair’s top priority was finding a family that would be the best fit.

Many host families feel similarly that the match must be right. “Offering benefits is fine, but people should not lose sight of the spirit of the program, which is cultural exchange and having an au pair join your family,” Ms. Burkhart said. “You’re going to eat dinner with this person regularly, spend holidays and vacations together for a year. It’s important to find a good fit.”

The current shortage of in-country au pairs caused by the one-two punch of quarantine and visa restrictions has further highlighted the lack of affordable child care in America, to the point where young foreigners expecting a year or two of cultural exchange have become lifelines, often unintentionally, for two-earner couples hoping to keep both their jobs.

When the order was officially announced on June 22, au pairs from around the world, preparing to leave home for a year or longer in the United States, saw their dreams crushed.

“I was honestly heartbroken,” said Kristina Kobzeva, 23, from Kazakhstan. “My mom told me that I can’t wait so much time until next year, that I’ll have to quit the program and get married if the borders won’t be reopened this year for au pairs.”

Au pairs pay fees to participate in the program, navigating a complex web of foreign recruiters, satellite offices and U.S. agencies that vary on a case-by-case basis. Including expenses associated with the J-1 visa application, the total out-of-pocket enrollment cost for au pairs usually hovers between $1,000 and $2,000, much of which is often nonrefundable. “I worked at least three months nonstop, two jobs, in order to save the money for the program,” Ms. Kobzeva added. “Now I’m literally in the middle of nowhere with no idea what to do.”

Enrollment for American host families is more straightforward: Between agency program fees and required au pair expenses (such as weekly stipends, travel and food, and up to $500 toward a mandatory education requirement), the total minimum cost of the program is around $20,000 a year, regardless of the number of children in the family. If a family pays only the minimum, it’s affordable when compared with traditional child care options.

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Credit…Ting Shen for The New York Times

When the match is a good one, families and au pairs can come away with long-lasting relationships. “Child care is one aspect of it, but we’ve really appreciated the cultural exchange component,” said Dawn Gile, a lawyer and host mom in Maryland. “We were going to travel to Europe to go visit our former au pairs. We keep in touch with them, our girls had this exposure to foreign languages, culture, food — they’ve been so enriched by the au pair program.”

But the primary motivation, by far, for most families to host an au pair is the flexible and affordable child care. Now, as the coronavirus threatens to keep schools and day cares closed, and as traditional babysitting becomes complicated in a socially distanced world, live-in child care is even more appealing. That’s especially the case for essential workers — physicians and other health professionals, in particular — who rely on au pair support to maintain long hours during the pandemic.

Nearly a month after the initial rules were issued, the State Department announced that some au pairs — namely, those caring for the children of medical professionals involved in the fight against Covid-19, or children with medical or other special needs — would be granted an exception to the visa restrictions rule and be allowed to enter the country.

Military families, often on the move, are also among those most affected by the rule. “It’s frustrating in a lot of ways because military spouses try so hard to maintain a career despite the impact of their spouse’s service,” said Ms. Gile, whose husband is in the military and who also serves as president of the Military Spouse JD Network. Now that her next au pair is barred from entering the country, Ms. Gile fears the lack of child care will affect her ability to keep working. “This is just another setback in trying to maintain a career,” she said.

“There are a lot of parents who, because of this, will have to quit their jobs,” Ms. Burkhart added.

Rachel Block, a former World Bank economist and experienced host mom, put it more bluntly: “The main substitute is women working less and having to pull back from the work force.

There are fears that the rush of perks offered by families might cloud au pairs’ ability to select kind and properly qualified hosts. While many au pairs are treated with respect, many aren’t, as recent investigations and court cases have shown.

“Very soon, au pairs realize that while you can have a great, amazing relationship with a family, they are your boss, and you are their employee,” added the Colombian au pair. “You are not part of the family.”

Au pairs have reported working far more than 45 hours per week, and being berated by host parents; some have seen their food restricted, or their activities monitored by surveillance cameras. Afraid of being sent home early, many suffer in silence.

A Brazilian au pair in New Jersey who said she was verbally abused daily by her host’s children and was “basically a maid,” was afraid to ask for a switch. “There’s a lot of stories about girls getting kicked out of the house when they ask for a rematch,” she said.

When she reported the situation to her local agency counselor, she was told in an email to work things out or she would likely be sent home. Only after the host mom approved the rematch a month later, the au pair said, did the agency agree to facilitate a change.

These experiences are far from uncommon. A 2018 investigation by several labor-rights groups argued that the J-1 au pair program is a work program with little real opportunity for cultural exchange, and that au pairs should be protected as domestic workers.

“This is an employment relationship. The law has upheld that to be the case,” said Rocío Ávila, a senior lawyer with the National Domestic Workers Alliance, one of the co-authors of the report. In December 2019, a Massachusetts court ruled that minimum-wage laws applied to au pairs in that state. As a result, in Massachusetts, the weekly cost of a full-time au pair rose from the roughly $200 minimum stipend ($4.35 per hour for 45 hours) to more than $500 in weekly wages, after deductions for meals and lodging.

“I think it’s the sponsor’s role to set the expectations of both the au pair and the host family,” said Jean Quinn, the director of Au Pair in America, an agency. “What we want are both families and au pairs to come with the right expectations. It doesn’t do anybody any good if that’s not the case,” she added. “I think we do a very good job at making it clear that this has to work for both sides in order for it to be a successful placement.”

Also key to au pair protections, labor advocates and some host parents like Ms. Block have argued, are more government regulation, know-your-rights education for incoming au pairs, and a more streamlined system for complaints, independent of private agencies.

As the matching frenzy continued, the Colombian au pair narrowed her dozens of options to just a handful of families. After her fourth day of nonstop interviews, she was triumphant. “I have a family!” she announced, smiling from ear to ear.

Ms. Burkhart was one of a few host parents who could say the same. “We just signed our au pair tonight :)” she wrote in an email.

The au pair was glad, in the end, that she hadn’t let herself be wooed by promises of cars or beach houses or more money, which could have been deceiving — because even for a complicated program that involves so many different actors, everything ultimately comes down to the quality of the match. “My sense is that this is a family that’s really going to care about me,” she said. And because she was here now, she could work with that.

Jordan Salama (@jordansalama19) is a writer whose essays and stories have appeared, most recently, in The New York Times, National Geographic and Smithsonian.

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Attorney Sophie Alcorn answers readers’ immigration questions

We had a great time hosting noted immigration attorney Sophie Alcorn on a live conference call with Extra Crunch members earlier this week.
Sophie writes our “Dear Sophie” column, where she answers questions about immigration status, particularly for founders and others in the tech ecosystem who want to work in …

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