That’s Enough Culture for Now

By Jessica M. Vaughan on April 6, 2009

Kudos to the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Exchanges for taking steps to curb use of certain temporary work visas as unemployment rates continue to rise in the United States. Deputy Asst. Secretary Stanley Colvin, who heads the bureau, recently sent a letter to organizations that sponsor summer work exchange programs asking them to voluntarily cut back on the number of visiting workers, noting that it could be very hard to place them in jobs this year. The Summer Work Travel Program is one of 15 “J visa” exchange programs run by the State Department that bring in 400,000 foreign workers, students, and exchange visitors each year. The summer workers typically work as lifeguards, ice cream scoopers, camp counselors, and produce stand clerks – the kind of jobs that would otherwise be held by American teenagers.

Although billed as a cultural exchange program, the Summer Work Travel visa has become a way for many U.S. employers to get cheap labor from abroad. Until several years ago, there was little oversight of the employers and much abuse of the young workers (see my comments on the subject). Long work hours, low pay, and substandard housing were common in many programs. The cultural exchange component might consist of a 4th of July cook-out and a trip to Walmart. The nominal sponsors, often well-known non-profits such as the YMCA, received sizeable payments from third-party employers to enable them to hire workers under the guise of a cultural exchange, and paid no attention to how visitors were treated. Many of the workers failed to return home at the end of the summer; a GAO report found overstay rates as high as 25% in some programs.

There is more oversight now, but still little effort to ensure that these programs provide some public diplomacy benefit; i.e. help improve America’s image abroad or impart some appreciation for American values that can be taken home. And few program sponsors, who all claim to be about “promoting cross-cultural experiences,” seem to have any interest in providing comparable overseas experiences for young Americans. There are now 1,438 sponsors, which is far too many for the Bureau’s one or two compliance offices to supervise.

It’s long past time to re-write the J visa rules and eliminate the employment categories altogether. If we really need so many thousands of foreign summer workers, babysitters, doctors, teachers, and university lab grunts (sometimes called “scholars”), well then the employers should make an economic case for them and go through the existing Labor Department-regulated, numerically limited employment “H visa” programs. All other exchange program sponsors should be required to place an equal number of Americans in programs overseas.