PBS NewsHour Takes a Look at Summer Work Travel

By Jerry Kammer and Jerry Kammer on August 20, 2012

The PBS NewsHour on Friday covered a lot of ground with its story about the State Department's Summer Work Travel (SWT) program, which over the past decade has brought more than a million foreign college students to the United States for low-wage seasonal jobs.

At the end of his nine-minute piece, economics correspondent Paul Solman said his reporting left him feeling ambivalent about the program, which is intended to engender good will in U.S. relations with foreign countries.

"Good will for sure", Solman said, "but costing at least some American jobs."

At PBS, where the reporting on immigration and the labor market effects of foreign workers is often superficial and the commentary is often slanted in favor of expansive immigration policies, an expression of ambivalence is an admirable journalistic advance.

In the intro to my comments, Solman said that CIS is noted for our skepticism about the benefits of immigration. True enough. But skepticism is essential to good reporting. In its coverage of immigration, American journalism could use a lot more.

Solman is an excellent reporter. I am grateful that he, working with producer Diane Lincoln, gave me an opportunity to make a few points that we raised in last year's investigative report on the SWT program.

Titled "Cheap Labor as Cultural Exchange," the report showed that SWT has been plagued by mismanagement at the State Department, abuse on the part of some employers, greed on the part of sponsoring organizations and their international recruiting partners, and the displacement of many young Americans from the workplace at a time of record youth unemployment.

In the NewsHour story, SWT lobbyist Mike McCarry downplayed the displacement effects, citing "the small number of exchange participants as compared to the enormous size of the American economy". And Solman noted that this year's SWT program issued J-1 temporary work visas to 85,000 young foreign workers.

But I wish the story had explained that the figure of 85,000 SWT workers is unusually low.

In fact, the program swelled to 153,000 in 2008 because of aggressive promotion by sponsoring organizations and their international recruiting partners who pulled in over $100 million every year by charging the SWT workers an average of $1,100 in fees. Until the recent spate of bad publicity, these groups had been working with a remarkably compliant State Department to expand SWT around the world.

They were particularly excited about growing SWT in such countries as China, India, and Brazil, which could fulfill the cheap-labor fantasies of every low-wage employer in the United States.

Most of all, I wish the story — which put a human face on the SWT program with interviews of workers from Ireland, China, and the Ukraine — had put a human face on the problem of displacement of American workers by the State Department's good will hunting.

After making room for SWT employer Emmett Woods, a restaurant owner in New York, to say he "couldn't find an American to wash dishes", the story could have made room for Sarah Smith, whose story is included in our report.

Smith's young son was laid off from his dishwashing job at a restaurant in Maine when the SWT workers arrived. Her story is especially compelling because she is a former State Department Foreign Service officer who endorses the philosophy that underlies SWT.

"I think the best way to convince the rest of the world that we're not bad guys is for them to come here and see the United States", she said. "But it's wrong to have a program that allows foreign kids to come in and take jobs that American kids need."

Smith added: "There are American kids sitting around on the sidewalk and hanging around complaining that they can't get work. And there are foreigners who have jobs they could do. And in this economy there are foreigners in jobs that young adults would like to have. Instead, we've got kids saying, 'I'm leaving Maine, there's no jobs here, there's nothing for me here.'"

"It's a real problem", Smith said. "The [SWT] program is out of control."

But the State Department's Robin Lerner assured PBS that the program is under control. I'll have some comments on that in tomorrow's blog.

Meanwhile, here are two thoughts in the form of questions:

Are our relations with Ireland really so vulnerable that we need to bring Irish kids over for summer jobs? And does anyone really think Emmett Woods can't find an American kid to wash dishes?

Sounds like a lot of blarney to me, Emmett. And I'm a graduate of Notre Dame.

Go Irish!!