With summer just weeks away, teenagers and college students looking for seasonal employment will have to compete with the annual influx of international workers.
The State Department’s Summer Work Travel Program (SWT) will once again, as it has for decades, provide an unlimited number of J-1 visas to young foreign nationals who will come to the U.S. to work at a variety of jobs. The State Department defends SWT as a valuable cultural exchange tool when in reality it’s a cheap labor bonanza for employers.
The jobs include lifeguarding, waiting tables at resorts, guiding tourists through national parks, scooping ice cream and providing child care as au pairs. These are jobs that most American kids would eagerly do, given the opportunity.
But since the J-1 has no prevailing wage requirement, employers can pay the visa holders lower wages than those U.S. workers earn in similar occupations and in the same geographic region. Furthermore, employers are exempt from paying the Social Security, Medicare, federal and state unemployment taxes on J-1visa holders who are often required to work overtime without extra compensation.
Because international students pay an average of about $1,100 in fees to private organizations that sponsor their participation in the program, the program generates well over $100 million in annual revenues for those organizations. Participants pay out millions more in visa fees to the State Department, and in travel expenses to and from the U.S. In the end, sponsors pay government dues to be part of the program; students pay the fees associated with the program and their own roundtrip travel expenses; employers pay nothing. Many unsuspecting SWTs return home disillusioned, often with little money saved.
The State Department’s failure to oversee its own program has led to multiple instances of exploitation like last year’s Myrtle Beach case. Ten Dominican Republic college students were promised jobs at an Italian ice shop, plus adequate accommodations, but ended up keeping house and living in a bed bug-infested motel. Similar abuses have been documented in Virginia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Mississippi.
Last year, The Wall Street Journal reported the Trump administration is considering reducing the number of visas issued under SWT. And as usual when employment-based visas are scrutinized with an eye toward cutting the total granted, businesses cry foul and falsely predict that without cheap foreign labor they’ll go bankrupt.
Yet, despite well-deserved and documented criticism from labor experts who point to multiple SWT flaws, the program carries on year after year even though the unemployment rate among young Americans, and especially minorities, is high. Last summer, a survey showed that teens were about three times as likely to be unemployed as other Americans.
A few takeaways: serving gelato or waiting tables on the Boardwalk can’t reasonably be considered cultural exchange. If employers offered decent wages and working conditions, they’d have little trouble attracting American kids. Moreover, shutting Americans out of the labor market has negative long-term consequences. Unemployed young adults don’t learn how to interact with their peers or their often demanding bosses. They don’t acquire essential work qualities like timeliness and accountability that will lead to a productive career.
The most obvious and important conclusion of all to draw from SWT is that the federal government cannot enact or efficiently monitor any type of immigration legislation that helps American workers.