Ex-Participants in the Summer Work Travel Program Speak

By David North on June 8, 2020

A new voice has entered the immigration debate: a group of people, using some Russian references, who say that they are former participants in the State Department's scandal-plagued Summer Work Travel (SWT) program.

They are no fans of the program, as their lengthy article indicates. I know nothing about them, but from what I have learned about the program by reading the extensive reporting of my colleague Jerry Kammer, they seem to be who they say they are. Here is how they describe themselves at the end of their report:

Team of swt veterans dedicated to protect and educate swt students. Stope [sic] swt abuse. Stop swt lies. Protect vulnerable students. Whether it is the US Department of State, American sponsor/employer or overseas agent, they all must respect the rights of swt participating students.

We are not native English speakers so please be gracious.

Their article includes this highly pertinent statement about the relationship between a likely shortened program this year and the impact on the participants:

3. Expensive shorter program with lower earning potential

Already ridiculously high price tag for the diplomatic initiative has increased further. SWT program costs ballooned due buying elevated air tickets on short notice (50-200% up), much higher start-up and reserve money requirements (>$1,200), extra insurance, drugs and other prevention expenses. By the time students arrive to US and start their low paying minimum wage jobs they accumulate large debt (>~$3,000). With very limited job opportunities beyond the contracted employer, students essentially become a bonded labor for that employer. Therefore vulnerability and risk of abuse and exploitation of students is significantly up.

While I worry about Russia-based critiques of U.S. activities, the point they make about the even greater degree of exploitation in a short program, as opposed to the usual four months, is a sound and sophisticated one, something I have not seen discussed in print before.

Frankly, this program should be terminated, or at least suspended for this year, given the extra tens of millions of Americans looking for work this summer, as I suggested earlier.

But the State Department has issued no public statement about the program's fate this year and, instead, I have gotten blurred replies from its publicists in response to my questions about the broader J-1 EVP (exchange visitor program), of which Summer Work Travel is a component. The replies to my questions were provided "as background, attributable to a State Department Official".

I have a valid J1 visa, can I travel and start my program?

The Department has not revoked J visas due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Therefore, an EVP participant can still plan to travel to the United States with an unexpired J visa. However, J visa holders should be aware that they may be refused admission into the country due to entry restrictions, including if they have been present at any time in the 14 days prior to arrival in the United States in a country from which travel is restricted under Presidential Proclamations 9984, 9992, 9993, or 9996.

If they choose to travel to the United States, travelers may be quarantined upon arrival.

If an EVP participant has a valid J-1 visa AND his or her sponsor has followed the appropriate guidance, the exchange visitor is free to participate in the EVP. EVP participants should be aware that sponsors are obligated to protect the health, safety and welfare of participants, and may be subject to local health and safety requirements.

I don't have a current J1 visa, can I get one?

Currently, the Department is not adjudicating new visa applications, except in mission-critical and emergency cases. In most cases, a J visa application would not be considered to be a mission-critical or emergency case, but cases within certain J program categories may be considered mission-critical, such as certain individuals applying for a J visa in the Alien Physician category, or certain medical professionals applying for a J visa in the Research Scholar category.

Those prospective participants who do not have valid J-1 visas generally will have to wait to apply for a visa until routine visa services resume. Before traveling to the United States, J visa holders should contact their sponsors regarding the impact of COVID-19 on their programs.

So what we have now is a situation in which, as long as visa interviews for it are not taking place, the program becomes less useful to U.S. employers seeking cut-rate workers with every day that passes. And the expense-to-gross ratio for the workers increases, again, with every day that passes.

The program operates for different periods for different employers, but it often runs from May 15 through September 15, a period of 120 days, and 24 of those days have passed as this is being written. The clean, decisive thing to do would be for the State Department to at least suspend the program for this year, if not kill it entirely.

But that would run contrary to the Trump administration's well-publicized efforts to open up the economy and pay less attention to the virus, so we are likely to have a truncated SWT this year, and one that is — as the Moscow voices tell is — even more exploitative than usual.

I hope I am wrong, but doubt it.