State Dept. Announces Restrictions on J-1 Visas

By Jerry Kammer and Jerry Kammer on November 8, 2011

The U.S. State Department has announced that it is imposing new restrictions on the Summer Work Travel (SWT) program, which over the past decade has brought about one million foreign students to the United States under cultural exchange program that provides them with J-1 visas and allows them to work for three months and then travel for another month.

The program has come into the national spotlight in recent months because of a protest by some students working at a Hershey warehouse near the Pennsylvania headquarters of the candy giant.

State said it is freezing the number of SWT participants that sponsoring organizations are allowed to bring to the U.S. for three months of work and a month of travel. It also said it will not take applications from organizations seeking to join the ranks of designated sponsors. The number of sponsors has grown steadily in recent years, with the active encouragement of the State Department, which has promoted the program domestically and through its consulates overseas.

State says exchange programs are vital to U.S. foreign relations. Sponsors, meanwhile, raise tens of millions of dollars in fees from the students for helping them arrange jobs and obtain visas from the State Department. But the sponsors, mostly nonprofits who work in multiple exchange programs, also proclaim a commitment to the value of exchanges in promoting international understanding.

The number of SWT participants has seen tremendous growth, from about 20,000 in 1996 to some 150,000 in 2008. It has slumped in recent years, due primarily to the recession. State's new restrictions will limit the program to its 2011 size, which it said is approximately 103,000.

The State Department's oversight of the program has long been criticized as weak and permissive by such agencies as the Government Accountability Office and State's own Inspector General. Last December, the Associated Press reported on a series of abuses suffered by the foreign students, allegedly at the hands of unscrupulous employers and indifferent sponsors.

Earlier this year, the Economic Policy Institute issued a blistering report that challenged State's longtime assertion that the SWT program was a vital part of a cultural exchange initiative mandated by a law passed50 years ago, at the height of the Cold War. EPI's Daniel Costa wrote that "Nothing in the Fulbright-Hays Act of 1961 even remotely suggests that the Exchange Visitor Program was intended to function as a seasonal guestworker program to meet the staffing needs of U.S. employers."

The Center for Immigration Studies is currently preparing an extensive report on the SWT program.