Should DACA Recipients Become 'Cultural Ambassadors' to Their Home Countries?

By Andrew R. Arthur on October 18, 2017

On April 18, 2017, President Trump issued Executive Order 13788, "Buy American and Hire American". Section 2(b) of that order states:

Hire American. In order to create higher wages and employment rates for workers in the United States, and to protect their economic interests, it shall be the policy of the executive branch to rigorously enforce and administer the laws governing entry into the United States of workers from abroad, including section 212(a)(5) of the Immigration and Nationality Act [INA].

According to an August 2017 article in the Wall Street Journal, as part of this effort: "The Trump administration is considering major reductions in cultural exchange programs, including those for au pairs and summer workers, that allow young people from foreign countries to work in the U.S."

The Journal continued:

People familiar with the conversations said the review includes the summer work-travel program, which brings more than 100,000 students to the U.S. each summer, often stationed in tourist destinations such as beach resorts and national parks. It also includes the smaller au pair program, through which foreigners live in American homes and provide child care as well as take classes and participate in intercultural exchanges with their host families. Other programs under discussion include those for camp counselors, interns and trainees.

As the State Department describes it, the "Summer Work Travel" (SWT) program allows:

College and University students enrolled full time and pursuing studies at post-secondary accredited academic institutions located outside the United States[to] come to the United States to share their culture and ideas with people of the United States through temporary work and travel opportunities.

Among the "benefits" of the SWT program, as the State Department explains it, is that it "provides foreign students with an opportunity to live and work in the United States during their summer vacation from college or university to experience and to be exposed to the people and way of life in the United States."

These "cultural exchange programs" are authorized under section 101(a)(15)(J) of the INA, and are popularly known as "J-1" visas. Almost immediately after the news broke that there might be reductions to these programs, employers who utilize the SWT labor of J-1 workers, from ski resorts and National Parks to the beach vacation destinations, pushed back on any such limitations, asserting that it would be difficult to find new workers to replace any lost SWT employees.

In addition, a bipartisan group of 17 senators wrote to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to express their view that: "This public diplomacy program has a long track record of success, providing an enriching exchange experience to a diverse pool of college and university students from across the globe, including from countries key to U.S. national security interests. ... at no expense to the American taxpayer."

My colleague Jerry Kammer detailed the criticisms of the SWT program in a 2011 report for the Center. Among those criticisms were that the program:

  • has become a cheap-labor program under the guise of cultural exchange;
  • has monetized a foreign policy initiative, creating a multi-million dollar SWT industry that generates enormous profits under the mantle of public diplomacy and presses for continual expansion around globe;
  • is so dominated by the State Department's concerns about international relations that it has become blind to the negative effects at home;
  • displaces young Americans from the workplace at a time of record levels of youth unemployment;
  • provides incentives for employers to bypass American workers by exempting SWT employers from taxes that apply to employment of Americans. Employers also don't have to worry about providing health insurance, since SWT students are required to buy it for themselves;
  • puts downward pressure on wages because it gives employers access to workers from poor countries who are eager to come to the United States, not just to earn money but also to travel within the country and burnish their resumes by learning English; ... and
  • has been exploited by criminals.

Proponents of the program argue that the benefits of SWT outweigh such concerns.

The international relations aspects of the SWT program are easy to understand. In essence, the argument goes, foreign nationals are able to come to the United States, be exposed to our culture and our values, and return home to spread a positive view of the United States, while utilizing the skills that they gained in this country to benefit their home country. For example, the State Department website for the J-1 program includes the following:

The students will return to Egypt, the Philippines, China, Thailand, Moldova, Poland, Ukraine, Romania and Jamaica with well-planned projects. As a student from Ukraine told me, this experience has changed her life. Many others reported the same. One student from Egypt remarked on how much the program developed his leadership skills, "I wondered all my life if I would be successful or not. Now I know I am." A young woman from Romania said, "I am changed. I was so shy, and now I can stand up and speak to an audience, and I am motivated to travel the world." These stories are a testament to the influence a skills-building exchange experience can have on a young person as they look to their future.

If such benefits accrue to foreign nationals who are only here for six months, imagine the skills and values that aliens who have spent a significantly longer period of time in the United States would carry back to their home countries. Such as DACA recipients.

To establish eligibility for DACA, an alien had to show that he or she:

[Was] under the age of 31 as of June 15, 2012;

Came to the United States before reaching [his or her] 16th birthday;

Ha[d] continuously resided in the United States since June 15, 2007, up to the present time;

W[as] physically present in the United States on June 15, 2012, and at the time of making [his or her] request for consideration of deferred action with USCIS;

Had no lawful status on June 15, 2012;

[Was] currently in school, ha[d] graduated or obtained a certificate of completion from high school, ha[d] obtained a general education development (GED) certificate, or [was] an honorably discharged veteran of the Coast Guard or Armed Forces of the United States; and

Ha[d] not been convicted of a felony, significant misdemeanor, or three or more other misdemeanors, and d[id] not otherwise pose a threat to national security or public safety.

Thus, the population of aliens who have received DACA benefits are working age individuals who have either received an education United States, or who are satisfied the educational standards in this country, or who have served in the all armed forces. Such individuals would plainly possess skills that are needed in any economy, developed or underdeveloped.

This is especially true, however, when the countries from which those aliens hail are taken into consideration. According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the vast majority of those aliens were from Mexico, followed by significantly lower numbers from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Peru.

With respect to Mexico, the CIA World Factbook states:

Mexico's current government, led by President Enrique PENA NIETO, has emphasized economic reforms, passing and implementing sweeping energy, financial, fiscal, and telecommunications reform legislation, among others, with the long-term aim to improve competitiveness and economic growth across the Mexican economy. Mexico began holding public auctions of exploration and development rights to select oil and gas resources in 2015 as a part of reforms that allow for private investment in the oil, gas, and electricity sectors. Mexico held its fourth auction in December 2016 and allocated 8 of 10 deepwater fields, demonstrating Mexico's capacity to attract investment amid low oil prices. The government will allocate additional fields in 2017.

This is clearly the sort of dynamic economy that would benefit from an influx of young educated workers. It is no wonder that Mexican Foreign Secretary Luis Videgaray stated in September 2017 that: "For Mexico it will be a pleasure to receive the young DACA. They are talent and human capital for our country" before adding: "but if they want to stay in the country where they have grown up, we have a legal and moral obligation to support them to achieve their dreams."

It should also be noted that Transparency International, in its Corruption Perceptions index for 2016, put Mexico fairly low on the list, at 123 out of 176 countries with Djibouti, Azerbaijan, Honduras, Laos, Moldova, Paraguay, and Sierra Leone. As that organization explains:

The lower-ranked countries in our index are plagued by untrustworthy and badly functioning public institutions like the police and judiciary. Even where anti-corruption laws are on the books, in practice they're often skirted or ignored. People frequently face situations of bribery and extortion, rely on basic services that have been undermined by the misappropriation of funds, and confront official indifference when seeking redress from authorities that are on the take.

It is beyond cavil that a population of nationals, who have lived in the United States, where such corruption is denounced by government officials, the press, and civil society, would resist this malfeasance after they have returned home. They would be a strong force for change and improvement, and could help to bring about needed reforms.

The same is true of El Salvador. Economically, while the CIA World Factbook reports it is:

The smallest country in Central America geographically, El Salvador has the fourth largest economy in the region. With the global recession, real GDP contracted in 2009 and economic growth has since remained low, averaging less than 2% from 2010 to 2014, but recovered somewhat in 2015-16 with an average annual growth rate of 2.4%. Remittances accounted for approximately 17.1% of GDP in 2016 and were received by about a third of all households.

In 2006, El Salvador was the first country to ratify the Dominican Republic-Central American Free Trade Agreement, which has bolstered the export of processed foods, sugar, and ethanol, and supported investment in the apparel sector amid increased Asian competition. In September 2015, El Salvador kicked off a five-year $277 million second compact with the Millennium Challenge Corporation - a US Government agency aimed at stimulating economic growth and reducing poverty - to improve El Salvador's competitiveness and productivity in international markets.

Although El Salvador has a nascent economy, it is one that would benefit from an influx of human capital, and especially from workers who are well educated and familiar with the outside world.

El Salvador is in a better corruption perceptions index position than Mexico. Transparency International ranks El Salvador 95 out of 176 countries, tying it with Argentina, Benin, Kosovo, Maldives, and Sri Lanka. That said, it is still a country that would benefit from an influx of citizens raised in a culture that did not countenance corruption, and there is no doubt that upon return, El Salvador's DACA recipients would militate for improvement and change.

Supporters of the J-1 SWT program make a strong, but somewhat unquantifiable, point when it comes to the diplomatic benefits of that program. Applying the same standard to recipients of DACA, the diplomatic benefits that would accrue to the United States and the home countries of those aliens would be even more impressive than they are for the home countries of the Poles and Romanians who are able to participate in the American culture and economy for a much briefer period of time under the SWT.