Related Publication: Backgrounder
Baltimore Sun, February 13, 2012
February may seem a little early to start thinking about summer jobs. But a "cultural exchange" program run by the State Department is already filling jobs in Ocean City and elsewhere — jobs that will not be available when American kids start looking for work.
Foreign students admitted through the Summer Work Travel (SWT) program work not only at nearby beaches but all over the country, at restaurants, convenience shops, supermarkets, moving companies, roadside vegetable stands, factories, fish processing plants, and — until recently — at a distribution center for Hershey candy. Hershey ended the program after a protest by SWT workers drew international attention to their claims that they were being overworked and mistreated.
After years of mounting problems, the State Department is finally conducting a reevaluation of the program that every year brings more than 100,000 foreign college students to the U.S. to work in seasonal jobs and tour the country. In addition to exploitation of some participants, those problems include an almost complete disregard of the program's impact on American young people seeking the same jobs.
In this respect, SWT is emblematic of a larger problem with the nation's immigration system, where new programs are created and allowed to expand significantly without giving careful consideration to their effects on the labor market or the larger American society.
The State Department labels SWT as "cultural exchange" that showcases the American way of life and wins friends among future world leaders. Indeed, many participants talk enthusiastically about their experiences, including Andrius Sarkunelis of Lithuania, whom I met in Ocean City.
Mr. Sarkunelis, who learned about SWT from a friend's Facebook page, raved about it last September as he cleaned counters at Boog's Barbecue. "I hope I can come back next year, and I'm going to tell all my friends about this place," he said.
Word is spreading fast, as the program is promoted by organizations that annually receive more than $100 million in fees from the students. They are the State Department-designated sponsoring agencies and their foreign partners. They recruit students, help them obtain visas and match them with employers.
While the students each pay an average of $1,100 in program fees, employers pay nothing. If they commit to hiring a certain number of workers, sponsors take them on free junkets to job fairs at universities around the world. The recruitment of American workers is meager by comparison. Ocean City businesses promote their annual job fair by sending posters to colleges in a 300-mile radius.
Meanwhile, the town's police department, which hires only American citizens, recruits on several dozen campuses in a five-state area.
SWT recruiting websites play American music, show images of Broadway and Hollywood, and buzz with too-good-to-be-true astonishment at the benefits for employers. A Russian agency, noting that SWT participants and employers are exempt from Social Security, Medicare and federal unemployment taxes, asks, "Sounds like a scam?" 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."
At consulates and embassies worldwide, State promotes SWT with the sort of boosterism normally associated with the Chamber of Commerce. Last May, as it rolled out a website for SWT and other exchange programs, officials raved about SWT's growth. "Brazil is a very big sending country," said one. "A lot of the Eastern and Western European countries are top sending countries. China is definitely growing. India is growing."
So at a time when the world's popular culture has been Americanized, the State Department strives to globalize the American summer job. State and its partners call SWT a great international civic enterprise, good for foreign relations and good for young participants.
Unfortunately, as the program has boomed — from about 20,000 in 1996 to a peak of 153,000 in 2008 — it has denied a place in the workforce for many American young people, who are now suffering record levels of unemployment.
Sarah Ann Smith gives a tally of how the arrival of SWT students affected her teenage son's dishwashing schedule at a restaurant in Camden, Maine: first week, when there were no SWT workers, 24 hours of work; second week, after the arrival of two SWT workers, eight hours; third week, when the SWT staff totaled six workers, zero hours.
Ironically, Ms. Smith is a former State Department Foreign Service officer who told me she 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." SWT, she said, "is out of control."
From his home not far from Hershey, Pa., former Harrisburg mayor Stephen Reed, a Democrat, put SWT in a domestic policy frame: "In times of economic distress, you can't have the Department of Labor and other departments calling job creation the number-one priority and then simultaneously have the State Department not just ignoring that but working in a contradictory manner."
Unfortunately, contradictions like this are not limited to the SWT program. Much of our nation's immigration policy — for both temporary visitors and permanent residents — is made with little concern for its impact on American society. Reevaluating SWT is a first step toward changing that.