Jerry Kammer is a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies.
In the summer of 1969, after graduating from Wellesley College and before entering Yale Law School, a young woman from Illinois named Hillary Rodham scooped the innards from salmon at a cold, wet processing plant in Valdez, Alaska. “I slimed fish,” she recalled during a visit to Anchorage as First Lady in 1994. “I was handed a spoon, some hip boots and a raincoat, and I think it was the best preparation for living in Washington.” Her husband, President Bill Clinton, quipped that, “in Washington you have to trade the spoon in for a shovel.”1
For decades, summer jobs in Alaska have beckoned to American college students eager to earn good money and revel in the state’s natural wonders. But in 2011 about 2,000 of these jobs – at fish processing plants, national parks, and other locations – were filled by young foreigners who come to the United States under a “cultural exchange” program administered by the State Department, which is directed by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
They are participants in the Summer Work Travel program (SWT). Every year SWT provides J-1 visas to more than 100,000 college students from around the world, allowing them to work for three months and take an additional month to travel. Because they pay an average of about $1,100 in fees to the private organizations that sponsor their participation in the program, the program generates well over $100 million in annual revenues for those organizations. They pay many millions more in visa fees to the State Department and in travel expenses to and from the U.S.2
The J-1 students, as they are sometimes known, can be found at national parks and beach resorts; amusement parks and neighborhood swimming pools; seafood processing plants and farms; upscale restaurants and fast food franchises; convenience stores, toy stores, and candy shops; roadside vegetable stands; factories, warehouses and moving companies. All in the name of cultural exchange.
“The sky is really the limit,” says the website of a Singapore travel agency that promotes the program through its affiliation with U.S. organizations designated by the State Department to sponsor SWT participants. The website declares that “there are thousands of cities and towns throughout America that can offer you a totally unique Work and Travel USA experience.”3
There are hundreds of such agencies that promote SWT around the world. Their websites buzz with too-good-to-be true astonishment at the program’s benefits for employers and workers alike.
“Sounds like a scam?” a Russian agency asks on its website, which notes that employers of SWT participants are exempt from Social Security, Medicare, and federal unemployment taxes. Then it answers the question: “It’s not. This is Work and Travel USA program, designed by the U.S. Dept. of state to promote intercultural friendship.”4
Critics claim that the State Department office responsible for administering the program has provided such lax regulation and permissive oversight that it has spun out of control and – in some cases – into the hands of abusive employers, unscrupulous sponsors, and predatory third-party agencies overseas.
The list of specific criticisms is long, including claims that the SWT 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;
- depends upon young foreigners who must spend several thousand dollars in fees, travel costs, and health insurance. As a result, many are virtually indentured to U.S. employers and are therefore unable to challenge low pay and poor working and housing conditions;
- is not truly an exchange program because it lacks reciprocity since a negligible number of young Americans find overseas employment through the SWT sponsoring agencies;
- has become a gateway for illegal immigration by SWT participants who overstay their visas; and
- has been exploited by criminals. For instance, in 2009, a State Department cable noted an ongoing investigation of “a Eurasian Organized Crime group operating in Colorado and Nevada that is suspected of using 28 Summer Work and Travel exchange program students … to participate in financial fraud schemes.”5
In the spring of 2011, State acknowledged that the Department of Homeland Security “has reported an increase in incidents involving criminal conduct (e.g. money laundering, identity theft, prostitution)” among SWT participants.6 That acknowledgement came as State issued new regulations intended to curb abuse of the program and require sponsors to fulfill their duty to monitor and advise their young customers.
State, which is supposed to oversee and regulate the sponsors, admitted that some of them had been so detached from their responsibilities that they became “mere purveyors of J-1 visas, leaving the actual program administration to third parties.”7
In the fall of 2011, as criticism mounted and Ann Stock, Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs, made a series of personnel moves, she quietly pushed Stanley S. Colvin out of his job as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Private Sector Exchange. Colvin, who is challenging the move as a violation of his rights, has been assigned to the job of “strategic adviser” to the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
Colvin had been involved in managing the program since the 1990s, when he was assistant general counsel at the United States Information Agency. The USIA administered SWT until 1999, when it was absorbed into the State Department.
In November of 2011, State announced the first-ever numerical restriction on the size of the program, freezing it at the 2011 level in response to what it called “unacceptably high” numbers of complaints about program abuses.8
That move was a sharp departure from State’s previous policy of promoting the growth of SWT – and other exchange programs – around the world.
For years, State has spread the news of exchanges with a missionary intensity. Dina Habib Powell, a State Department official in the administration of George W. Bush, called exchanges “a strategic pillar of our nation’s public diplomacy.”9 In 2009, Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Judith McHale said exchanges are “the single most important and valuable thing we do.”10
State’s Dual Relationship with SWT Partners
The exchange structure was established in 1961, when Congress passed the Mutual Education and Cultural Exchange Act. The legislation sought to “increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries.”11
Propelled by successive administrations, SWT grew dramatically. Its ranks of young participants swelled from about 20,000 in 1996, to 56,000 in 2000, and 88,500 in 2005. Participation peaked in 2008 at nearly 153,000 before the recession caused it to sag – to 132,000 in 2010 and 103,000 in 2011.
While State has the responsibility regulate SWT, the day-to-day administration of the program is the work of some 55 organizations designated by the State Department as SWT sponsors. Many are nonprofit organizations that administer a variety of exchange programs and enjoy tax-exempt status. Some have grown rapidly because of the SWT boom.
The relationship between the sponsors and the State Department is characterized by unusual duality that at times seems schizophrenic.
On the one hand, as the regulator of the SWT program, State oversees the sponsors and must be willing to discipline them when appropriate. On the other hand, State Department officials regard the relationship as a partnership. In 2010 Assistant Secretary of State Ann Stock called the sponsors “our key partner on the front lines of international engagement.”12
Stock made that observation at the 2010 meeting of the Alliance for International Educational and Cultural Exchange, a trade association that lobbies Congress and the State Department for the sponsors, who themselves have a dual approach to their work. They declare an idealistic commitment to building exchanges for the sake of world peace. But they also rake in tens of millions of dollars in fees from the foreign students they bring into the SWT program.
Sponsors’ income has soared in the past decade as the SWT program has grown rapidly and spread around the world. The Alliance’s executive director, Michael McCarry, has said that one of his responsibilities is to lobby for federal “regulations that are permissive and allow people to come to the United States, in a responsible way.”13 McCarry coordinates the sponsors’ work with congressional offices, where they advocate not just for SWT, but for many other exchange programs, including those for high school students, au pairs, camp counselors, teachers, professionals, and others.
In the SWT program the State-sponsor relationship is complicated by the fact that State has allowed the sponsors to outsource much of their work – the screening and selecting of SWT participants and their orientation to life in the United States – to partner agencies in foreign countries that are not under State’s jurisdiction.
Problems with Foreign Partners
In some instances, sponsors have done little more than collect students’ fees as they outsourced much of their work to their foreign partners. And in some instances the foreign partners have proved to be unscrupulous or even criminal.
In 2009, for example, the U.S. consulate in St. Petersburg highlighted the poor screening of a Russian agency by describing one SWT applicant who, “when questioned about why she was not attending university, admitted that she works in St. Petersburg at an erotic services salon.” The consulate found that another agency was using its relationship with a U.S. sponsor to provide job offers “at U.S. companies that no longer existed.”14
Such negligence and fraud were the target of new regulations adopted by the State Department in 2011. Those regulations require that sponsors vet and monitor their sponsors more carefully. Critics have called them “vague” and “toothless.”
Striving to Be “Customer Centric”
As we will see, the sponsoring organizations and their partners have mounted elaborate campaigns to recruit both SWT participants and U.S. employers. Meanwhile, the State Department has complemented their efforts with a spirited boosterism of a sort more commonly associated with the Chamber of Commerce.
A month after State adopted the new regulations to control SWT, it rolled out its new J-1 visa website. In a 2011 webchat with foreign reporters, an official hailed the move as the “first step to revamping our entire Bureau’s web presence to be more customer centric and user friendly.”15
State was enthusiastic about the prospects for further growth and globalization of SWT. In the same webchat, one official noted its blossoming potential in some of the world’s most populous countries with this excited assessment: “Brazil is a very big sending country. A lot of the Eastern and Western European countries are top sending countries. China is definitely growing. India is growing.” SWT is open to the world. Yet the officials assured the foreign audience that the size of the SWT program is determined largely by the marketplace of young foreigners who wanted to participate.
State’s abrupt decision in November 2011 to freeze the number of SWT participants signaled at least a tentative recognition that the program needs also to balance other concerns, including unemployment rates within the United States, the appropriateness of some SWT jobs for a cultural exchange, and the ability of sponsors to do their work responsibly.
At the same time, State announced that it was suspending designation of new sponsors for the program. Nevertheless, more than a month later, State was still declaring on its J-1 website that it “welcomes and encourages new organizations to become sponsors of exchange visitor programs,”16 the largest of which is the SWT.
“Enrich Your Resume” in the USA
SWT has boomed because of a remarkable combination of disparate forces: State Department enthusiasm based on foreign policy concerns, the hunger of young people around the world to come to the United States, intense recruitment by dozens of U.S. sponsoring organizations and their hundreds of foreign partners, and the growing awareness of American employers that the program offers them many benefits.
These forces have propelled SWT to become a worldwide industry whose capacity for growth appears to be virtually unlimited.
The young participants have multiple motivations for signing up. Even at the minimum or near-minimum wages that SWT jobs offer, many earn much more than they could at home. Many are eager to take advantage of the permission they receive to travel for one month around the United States after working for three months. They want to see the sights and improve their English.
The Divan Student Travel agency in Jordan described the SWT magic this way on its Facebook page: SWT “gives you the opportunity to achieve your dream and enrich your resume and work” in the United States.17
To pursue that opportunity, many students borrow heavily, accumulating debts that, according to critics, make them de facto indentured servants.
In his 2011 critique of SWT, Daniel Costa of the liberal Economic Policy Institute noted the report in a Peruvian newspaper that students spend up to $3,000 in fees and travel expenses to get to the United States. Wrote Costa: “This constitutes a huge investment” for a student from a country “where the median disposable family income is only $4,385 per year. He or she will be desperate to earn the expenditure back in wages.”18
As suggested by the Jordanian travel agency, another fundamental force in the growth of SWT is the international infatuation with American popular culture and American mythology of individual freedom and self-reinvention.
A Google search for “Work and Travel” and “J1 Visa” provides some idea of the power and energy SWT has taken on around the world as those twin terms have become part of the vocabulary of university students. In mid-December 2011 the search produced 76,800 matches. They included material from hundreds of websites maintained by sponsors and their recruiting partners, some of which were founded by business people who saw the program’s potential for growth when they were SWT participants themselves.
The websites are splashed with photos of iconic American images: Times Square, the Grand Canyon, the U.S. Capitol, the massive Hollywood sign overlooking Los Angeles. They promise young customers the glitz and glamour and wonder of the United States.
Selling American Cool in Moldova
The Moldovan travel company Student Adventure maintains a high-energy, multicolored website to recruit local college students for SWT jobs.
“Check It Out!” its website beckons on a page featuring a hyper-made-over Statue of Liberty. It is a super-cool version for the hip-hop era, with billowing blonde hair, red lipstick, red sunglasses, and ear buds. Instead of a torch, she holds aloft an ice cream cone. Other images of American cool fade in and out, declaring “Work & Travel, DUDE!” and “Wassup from America, Man!” Plus “See America in 3D” and “Keep Smiling”.19
Student Adventure’s website declares that since it was founded in 2000 it has brought over 5,000 young Moldovans to the United States. With the ardor of a preacher offering the chance to be born again, it proclaims that for many, the program “changed life totally.”
Eager for an American summer, 5,547 Moldovans took part in the SWT program in 2008, when the country entered the list of top-10 sending countries. It was behind Russia, Brazil, Turkey, Ukraine, Thailand, Ireland, and Peru. It was just ahead of Poland, whose numbers dropped steadily after its 2004 entry into the European Union.
Many of the recruiting websites link to YouTube videos. They show J-1 participants at work – sliming fish in Alaska, working the grill at McDonald’s. And at play – body surfing at beach resorts, marveling at the lights of Time Square, drinking and dancing and romancing at parties. The musical backgrounds are as varied as Nirvana, the Beach Boys, the electro-pop of Ke$ha. The videos are a powerful form of SWT advertising, conveying a seductive message of American cool, American opportunity, American freedom, American fun.
Social Media Feeds the Boom
The website of the Ukrainian travel agency Orange Travel touts SWT as a gateway to the “United States of America, the land where you change a lot of views, where people smile and greets each other on the streets; it is much more then crossing the ocean, your independent summer stay in the USA bring up the freedom and self-confidence you never felt before.”20
Orange Travel is one of dozens of Ukrainian agencies that promote SWT. That is a particularly dense concentration, but the SWT phenomenon has exploded in many other countries, with a boost from social media.
There are Facebook pages that broadcast the opportunities and Internet forums that that spread the news, including the story that captivated Andrius Sarkunelis. He is a 20-year-old finance major from Lithuania who told the story while cleaning the counters at Boog’s Barbecue in Ocean City, Md.
Sarkunelis said he learned about the program on a friend’s Facebook page and then used Google to learn more. He said he had a wonderful summer of 2011 and was eager for more. “I hope I can come back next year,” he said, “and I’m going to tell all my friends about this place.”
The young Lithuanian’s enthusiasm for SWT is commonplace among participants, especially in places like Ocean City, which offer sun-drenched opportunities for both work and good times with other young people who come from all across Eastern Europe, and in recent years from China, Mongolia, Thailand, Taiwan, and Colombia.
China entered the top-ten SWT list in 2009, sending 3,152 students. In 2010 the number grew to 5,056. Increasing attention from sponsors and a growing network of Chinese recruiters have the country poised for SWT growth, which will likely be checked – if only temporarily – by the freeze imposed by the State Department.
An Employer’s Dream
The expansion of SWT has been cheered by employers, especially in resort areas where they face the loss of American students who generally return to school in mid-August.
“Our summer doesn’t end then, so we had to come up with a solution,” said Christine Komlos of the Seacrets restaurant and nightclub in Ocean City, where several dozen SWT students supplement the domestic workforce. “We’ve only got 6,000 people who live here year-round. That is not enough people to cover all the summer jobs we have when hundreds of thousands of people come here in the summer.”
The manager of the Carousel Hotel in Ocean City told the Washington Post, “We absolutely couldn’t get through the summer without these kids. They’re great workers. They want every hour you’ll give them. They work second jobs instead of partying, and they don’t all leave on the same day at the end of the season. The entire summer economy of Ocean City has come to depend on European student workers.”21
For employers, SWT offers an array of benefits. Some like the touch of international flair. All appreciate the access to a large supply of educated workers willing to work at close to minimum wage. The tax benefits are also attractive. Employers need not worry about health insurance since SWT participants are required to buy their own. And the program offers liberation from the difficult tasks of recruiting workers by ones and twos.
“CIEE takes all the work out of our hands,” says a grateful manager at Maine’s Sebasco Harbor Resort, in a video posted on YouTube. It was produced by the largest SWT sponsors, CIEE, which is based in Portland, Maine.22
CIEE and the other SWT sponsors get plenty of help from partners like New Jersey-based Seasonal Staffing Solutions. Founded in 2006 by former SWT participant Vadim Misnik from Belarus, it offers employers an international army of inexhaustible young workers hungry to earn dollars. “Most of our students will be happy to work for 60 or more hours per week,” says its website.23
While the sponsors and agencies collect handsome fees from SWT participants, they offer their services to employers for free. “What does it cost to use our service?” asks New York-based InterExchange. “Nothing. As a non-profit organization promoting cultural exchange, our goal is to find exceptional staff for your business, and to help international students experience life in the United States.”24
Here’s the pitch of a Russia-based recruiting firm: “Hiring international exchange students … is now absolutely easy for your firm. You inform us about your needs, we select and submit the applications for you to consider and we do the rest of the hiring procedure for you.”25
Many sponsors and recruiters point out SWT’s cost-cutting tax benefits. Several of their websites include a “tax calculator” that allows them to tally what they save by hiring foreign workers.26
Seasonal Staffing Solutions claims that by hiring five SWT students instead of “regular workers,” i.e. Americans, for the summer season, an employer can pocket an extra $2,317.27
But wait, there’s more, as TV pitchmen like to say. Sponsors also make sure that employers know that despite a widespread impression that the Summer Work Travel program is limited to the summer, the reality is that the program offers “Year-Round Availability.” The pitch of InterExchange is typical: “Because we recruit students from all over the world we can fill positions at any time of year.”28
“It’s all perfectly simple,” declares the website of JobOfer.org, which was founded in 2003 by Ruslan Lysak, who was an SWT student nearly a decade ago when he was studying applied mathematics at a Russian university. “Just register, review the profiles of international students we’ll be sending, and don’t worry about the rest.”29
Wooing Employers with Free Trips
The sponsors’ pitch to employers isn’t limited to touting the free recruitment of workers, their willingness to work for minimum wage, and tax exemptions. Many offer recruiting trips to Europe, Asia, and South America so employers can interview prospective SWT employees and sign them up on the spot.
Consider Chicago-based CCI, which declares that its mission is “the promotion of cultural understanding, academic development, environmental consciousness, and world peace.”30 In the fiercely competitive business of SWT sponsorship, CCI offers packages to employers to “travel to exciting destinations in Brazil and Argentina to interview pre-screened applicants.” For employers who hire a certain number of workers through CCI, the trips are free.31
Employers who don’t sign up for the overseas travel have another option. CCI will fly them to Chicago for a “virtual job fair” that allows them to conduct remote interviews with students who are pre-screened by CCI’s overseas partners.
This is the pitch: “CCI brings you to Chicago to complete your hiring process and to enjoy our wonderful city! Not only will CCI provide a venue and guidance for your international interviews, we also offer accommodations at a boutique hotel, a delightful excursion, and an opportunity to get to know our staff!”
That staff includes Debbie Best, a Senior Employer Relations Specialist touted on the website as a woman whose “extensive experience in the radio and entertainment industries and in HR outsourcing ensures that the CCI J-1 Work and Travel program brings the world to the workplace.”32
Best not only arranges to take employers overseas, she also rewards the most active participants in the SWT with other incentives. She picks up the tab for round-trip airfare, four nights of hotel accommodations, and three days of skiing in Wyoming as part of the “Jackson Hole Experience.”33
Consider the pitch from InterExchange, which describes itself as “a non-profit organization devoted to promoting cross-cultural awareness through work and volunteer exchange programs.”34 In the late summer of 2011 InterExchange was touting its upcoming two-week trip to hire workers for summer 2012. The itinerary included stops in Moscow, Istanbul, Belgrade, and Paris, with a day for sightseeing at each location.
“You can visit one country or all four on an all-expense-paid trip designed to help you meet and recruit the best international summer staff in the world,” InterExchange promised. “You’ll have the opportunity to experience these unique cultures up close, and gain a better understanding of the students you’ll be hosting and the customs of each country.”35
Employers who hired 50 or more workers through Interexchange would travel for free – in business class to and from Europe and standard fares in between. Those who hired 15 would travel free to one country. For employers who were not interested in traveling, but who would hire at least 10 workers, InterExchange offered its “virtual recruitment tour,” which brings them to the sponsor’s New York offices to interview and hire in a video conference. “Travel, accommodations, dinner, sightseeing, and entertainment are all included during your stay in New York City.” Cost to employers: nothing.
Preparing the Next Generation
While SWT has become a lucrative industry, its sponsors declare a higher motivation. They profess a commitment not only to international understanding but also to the preparation of young people for international competition.
“Today’s global markets require international work experience, and the value added by working in the USA is immeasurable to students from overseas,” says Texas-based Alliance Abroad.36
The International YMCA proudly declares its mission to “provide an opportunity for young people from around the world to challenge themselves through learning to work, grow, and live in another culture.”37
Virginia-based Janus International Hospitality Student Exchange proclaims that its mission is “to provide our participants from around the world a cultural exchange program while helping them gain the necessary skills to succeed in today’s global economy.”38
When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke about work on an Alaskan “slime line” as preparation for Washington, she was joking. But the experience, which included being summarily fired after she complained about sanitary conditions at the plant, was valuable to her on several levels. Biographer Roger Morris writes that her trip to Alaska was an “act of restless independence” against the wishes of both friends and family. He adds that she came “back from the Northwest with a new air of self-sufficiency, if not cynicism” and then “confidently enrolled as one of the few women at Yale Law.”39
It is ironic that as SWT has expanded around the globe, it has given foreign students work opportunities once seized upon by young Americans. The irony is intensified by the fact that the program is administered by the State Department, which is managed by a woman who struck out to Alaska as a way of preparing herself for the challenges that awaited her. Today in Alaska, a summer worker in a fish processing plant is more likely to come from the Ukraine, Russia, Bulgaria, Moldova, or Turkey than from Illinois.
1 John Aloysius Farrell, “Clinton on saxophone boffo in the Philippines”, Boston Globe, November 14, 1994.
2 The Summer Work Travel program is by far the largest of 14 exchange programs in the J-1 visa category. Others include programs for high school exchange, au pairs, camp counselors, physicians, and Fulbright scholars. In 2010, more than 300,000 J-1 visa holders came to the United States, of whom 120,000 were SWT participants. The State Department states that, “The Exchange Visitor Program promotes mutual understanding between the people of the United States (U.S.) and the people of other countries by educational and cultural exchanges, under the provisions of U.S. law. Exchange Programs provide an extremely valuable opportunity to experience the United States and our way of life, thereby developing lasting and meaningful relationships.” http://travel.state.gov/visa/temp/types/types_1267.html.
6 Federal Register, Volume 76 Issue 80, April 26, 2011, http://www.federalregister.gov/articles/2011/04/26/2011-10079/exchange-v....
8 Jeff Gelles, “State Department puts curbs on student visa program”, Philadelphia Inquirer, November 8, 2011.
10 McHale speech at the 2009 board and membership meeting of the Alliance for International Educational and Cultural Exchange, http://www.alliance-exchange.org/2009-board-and-membership-meeting.
11 U.S. Code, Title 22; Chapter 33. Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Program, Section 245.
12 Stock at the 2010 membership meeting of the Alliance for International Educational and Cultural Exchange, http://www.alliance-exchange.org/2010-membership-meeting.
13 McCarry speech, May 23, 2008, at a symposium titled “Strategic Initiatives for University Internationalization”, at George Washington University, Washington, DC,
16 State Department website for J-1 Visa Exchange Visitor Program, http://j1visa.state.gov/sponsors/become-a-sponsor/.
21 Steve Hendrix, “Foreign Legion; Every Summer, a Wave of International Students Hits Ocean City – to Work, Not Play,” The Washington Post, August 23, 2003.
39 Roger Morris, Partners in Power: The Clintons and Their America, New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1996, p.139.