Political Muscle Curtails Effort to Reform Program that Displaces American Workers in the Name of Cultural Exchange

By Jerry Kammer and Jerry Kammer on May 7, 2012

As I gathered information for the investigative report that CIS published last year on the State Department's Summer Work Travel Program (SWT), I found a YouTube video that provided remarkable evidence of how far the program had strayed from its announced purpose of cultural exchange

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The video, which has since been removed from YouTube, showed the bluntly honest recruiting pitch made by a recruiter for a seafood processing plant in Nakenak, Alaska, during a job fair in the Ukraine.

"We're looking for hard workers who are not afraid to work every single day, up to 16 hours a day", said the recruiter. "You will make a lot of money in a very short period of time and you won't spend it anywhere because there's really nothing to do in Nakenak other than work."

Last week, as the State Department announced its plan to deny seafood processors access to the Summer Work Travel program, it acknowledged that the "work component has too often overshadowed the core cultural component".

Earlier this year, the State Department informed the Alaska seafood industry that it intended to apply the ban to the upcoming summer season. But protests from Alaska's two senators, who had been intensely lobbied by the industry, persuaded State to delay the ban until November 1.

Last week Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) "expressed satisfaction with the delay". Alaska seafood processing plants depend on foreign students to meet their seasonal labor needs when they cannot find local or domestic workers for the jobs", Begich said in a press release. "Abrupt elimination of this source of labor would have seriously disrupted the upcoming salmon season, affecting even fishermen and local fishing communities which depend on the seasonal processors."

Begich said nothing about constituents across Alaska who are furious at the program's displacement of American workers. Many employers have preferred to ignore American workers, responding not only to the eagerness of young foreigners to earn the Alaska minimum wage, but also to the tax incentives our own government provides them not to hire Americans.

It will be interesting to see whether the delayed implementation of the ban turns out to be just the first step toward its complete cancellation in the face of opposition from the politically and economically mighty Alaska seafood industry.

A release from Alaska's other senator, Republican Lisa Murkowski, provides a hint that the battle will continue. Murkowski said the delay means that State "will not prohibit Alaska's seafood processing facilities from utilizing the program until at least November 2012". (Emphasis added.)

It also will be interesting to see how SWT employers in Alaska and across the country respond to new State Department rules intended to reform the SWT industry, which every year generates more than $100 million for the sponsoring organizations that match young foreigners with jobs and provide them with J-1 visas.

Will employers respond with ramped-up efforts to hire jobless young Americans? Or will they follow the Alaskan lead with intensified lobbying to persuade elected officials to help them continue business as usual — despite record levels of youth unemployment in the United States?