Rallying outside the city’s famous chocolate factory where they all worked, the students representing some 20 different countries, decried the way Hershey’s was using the J-1 program to steal jobs from American workers and to depress wages among low-skill workers.
The protest, which was backed by local labor unions, sent shock waves through the Obama State Department which promised to investigate the students’ charges.
The investigation, which led to a number of highly-publicized reforms, was largely window-dressing. It was an open secret that the Summer Work Travel program, ostensibly designed to promote “cultural awareness” among foreign-born students, was functioning as a disguised “guest worker” program, giving employers like Hershey’s ready access to cheap exploitable labor.
Like other U.S. guest workers programs — about a dozen in total, including H-1B, H-2A, and H-2B — Summer Work Travel was also depriving domestic American workers (in this case teenagers and college students) of access to badly needed jobs in the U.S. labor market.
But unlike those other visa programs, there was virtually no scrutiny of how Summer Work Travel worked.
Employers, with the full backing of the U.S. government, were importing low-wage “temporary” workers with impunity through shady and unaccountable overseas recruitment firms and replenishing often grueling low-skill summer jobs across the country without regard for the impact of Summer Work Travel on local wage rates or working conditions.
And the number of those exploited student-workers was soaring.
While H-2B, which fills seasonal niche for non-agricultural work like shrimping, was capped statutorily at 66,000 annual admissions, there were no such limits on J-1. As many as 300,000 students were being collared to work in factories and perform other menial work annually.
And many weren’t leaving the country after a maximum of 10 months, as required by law. A report by the Department of Homeland Security found that the visa “overstay” rate for J-1 was the highest of any U.S. visa program. And many J-1 workers that did leave were still coming back year after year, in effect becoming a semi-permanent work force.
The public face of J-1 – the one most heavily promoted – tends to focus on child-friendly jobs like becoming an au pair or a lifeguard. Defenders of the program say native-born Americans would rather not do many of these jobs and do not respond to employer recruitment offers.
In fact, recruitment among American youth tends to be lackadaisical at best. Some employers post recruitment offers in states far away from the job site. Moreover, the program’s cultural awareness goal virtually ensures that foreign-born students are given first priority.
Especially during times of high unemployment, there may be plenty of native-born youth available to fill such jobs, if the local labor market were actually tested.
The State Department’s damage control review of J-1 did result in a slashing of the J-1/SWT visas to just 109,000 annually. The review also required recruiters, hired by the State department, to charge less onerous recruitment fees and to provide greater transparency about the kind of work available.
But few believe these changes have eliminated the underlying problems with J-1. In fact, reports as recent as December 2017 suggest otherwise.
President Donald Trump and the GOP-controlled Congress have at least two options moving forward. One is simply to eliminate Summer Work Travel. In theory, more than 100,000 summer employment would open up for American youth virtually overnight. Politically, it’s an attractive option.
Business groups, of course, oppose that move. In an op-ed published last year, the head of the New Jersey restaurant and hospitality association claimed that terminating Summer Work Travel would “devastate” businesses all along the Jersey Shore.
“It is estimated that the average student spends up to $5,300 while here. With nearly 5,600 students in New Jersey during the course of a year, we realize a $30 million economic benefit from their housing, food, and shopping expenses,” Marilyn Halvorsen wrote.
The second option is to continue the process of reform. As with other guest worker programs, domestic recruitment requirements could be strengthened, for example, and an “adverse wage effect” standard imposed to limit the possible effects of wage depression on local economies.
Whichever course Trump and Congress pursue, further action is definitely needed. Trump has promised to pursue a nationwide policy of “hire American” which means giving priority to domestic US workers for all new employment opportunities.
Independent socialist and 2016 presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, one of the loudest critics in the Congress of the H-1B visa program, has come out publicly against the J-1/SWT, saying it only leads to cheap labor exploitation.
There is room for mainstream liberals, who have opposed Trump’s effort to cut back on permanent immigrant visas, to support reform or elimination of Summer Work Travel, too. The program, as currently configured, does not provide for a pathway to permanent legal status, let alone citizenship
Who knows? Maybe this is one troubled visa program that Trump and his critics could come to an agreement on. And without the usual finger-pointing, hyped argument, and bitter partisan rancor.
Stewart Lawrence is a consultant and policy analyst.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.