Summertime, Brought to You by Eastern Europe

By John Wahala on June 13, 2012

The season of outdoor amusement has arrived. Across the country, the young and the young at heart bask in sun-drenched days and long tranquil evenings, enjoying cookouts, concerts, sporting events, and of course trips to the pool and the beach. It is the time of many American traditions. In recent years this has included the arrival of legions of young foreign workers who descend on resorts and recreational areas to keep them running day and night.

Once a practice becomes commonplace it is difficult to imagine how things were done beforehand. Although the hiring of seasonal visa holders is a fairly new development, it is one that employers now claim is a necessity. Whole resort towns are now staffed by teenagers from various countries. As Jerry Kammer has extensively documented, they toil long hours at vacation locales, but also in factories, warehouses, and at moving companies. Their importation has become a global industry that provides employers with tax breaks, lower payroll costs, and pliant workers who are often exploited.

Sold as a way to experience American life, these arrangements often end in disillusionment. Last summer’s widely publicized protest at Hershey highlighted how many foreigners are overworked and kept in near total isolation. Following the protest, the State Department banned the recruitment company responsible for placing the workers and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ordered a rigorous review of the entire Summer Work Travel program to ensure that it “fulfills its original purpose as a cultural program for foreign college and university students.” Whether these actions will stop abuse of the program is yet to be seen. Lobbying pressures and bureaucratic inertia make reform unlikely. Visas continue to be issued and demand for these workers continues to grow.

Our local pool is guarded by a new visa holder every year, usually from Eastern Europe. The pool is small and draws few swimmers, so the job is not stressful. But it entails long hours, seven days a week, with little relief. By late June you can see the enthusiasm drain from the lifeguards as the curiosity of their new surroundings wanes. Nonetheless, the job remains an attractive position for those who like to swim and sit in the sun with little interruption. Some of the lifeguards use the time to read or browse the Internet.

One of the lifeguards, a woman from Bulgaria, rode a bicycle to and from the housing provided by the recruitment company that was located several miles from the pool. She said the company offered her a chance to see the United States, but she had little time to tour the local area or even prepare a decent meal. She grew so frustrated that she quit the program before the summer ended, returning to the comforts of home.

Before she left she told me about a friend who was also in the program. She worked at a pool in a much busier nearby neighborhood, where most of the residents are Salvadoran immigrants. Her American experience consisted of learning about the culture of El Salvador. Bringing in foreign students under the guise of cultural exchange and placing them in immigrant enclaves where few speak English is just another confounding aspect of our federal immigration program.

But the corrosive effect of the Summer Work Travel program goes well beyond its false advertising. Steven Camarota has shown that the program, along with other aspects of our immigration system, has displaced American teenagers from the labor market. The total number of youths not working hit a record 18.5 million last summer. From 2000 to 2011, the share of U.S.-born young people working dropped from 64 percent to 48 percent and the severity of this decline was similar across racial and ethnic categories.

As the Center has repeatedly explained to Congress and others, the decline in native employment hampers the development of a work ethic. Employers rightly or wrongly point to the apathy in American youth. But the surest way to perpetuate such apathy is to exclude them from the job market. As networks of eager foreign workers are created and preferred, it becomes more difficult for Americans to obtain or even learn about these jobs. Soon the jobs are stigmatized as ones that Americans will not or should not do.

While it is absurd to insist that we need foreigners to come halfway across the world to sit poolside, it is a notion that persists, even in the context of record unemployment. So as we enjoy the season, we should be cordial to our visitors who have been welcomed by the State Department. Perhaps we can impart some decent American values as they experience some of the less attractive ones.