In mid-July, during a visit to Martha’s Vineyard, the beautiful island off the coast of Massachusetts, I met two students from Brigham Young University who had summer jobs scooping ice cream cones and making sundaes in the resort community of Edgartown.
“It’s a great experience to be here,” said one, whose name is Ashley. “It’s a chance to see a part of the country I might not have had a chance to see.” Ashley said she is sure that many other young people from back home in Utah would jump at an opportunity to work their summers here.
But a program administered by the State Department is a major obstacle in the way of young Americans who might fill seasonal jobs not only at resorts across the country, but also in jobs in shops, restaurants, moving companies, and many other sites across the nation.
It’s called the Summer Work Travel program and it brings university students from around the world to work here during school breaks. The State Department, which bills the program as a “cultural exchange,” says the program creates good will by exposing future leaders of foreign countries to the American way of life.
Summer Work Travel, or SWT, has been operating since the 1960s, but it boomed in the late 1990s. It grew from about 20,000 participants in 1996 to a peak of 153,000 in 2008. Then its numbers dipped —because of the recession and a series of embarrassing incidents that culminated with a protest in the summer of 2011 by workers who said they were misled and mistreated at a giant Pennsylvania warehouse that distributes candy for the Hershey Company.
This year, the State Department, while adopting reforms intended to curb abuse, has limited the program to 103,000 workers. That move disappointed the dozens of American sponsoring organizations designated by the State Department to recruit the foreign students and administer the J-1 visas that allow them to come for up to four months of work and an additional month of travel.
SWT has been a goldmine for the sponsors. They receive an average of $1,100 in fees from the students, who must also pay for travel and medical insurance. So sponsors’ income from 103,000 students this year totals more than $113 million, which they share with dozens of partner agencies in countries around the globe.
U.S. employers also benefit it a big way. They pay nothing to have eager foreign workers recruited to their worksites. Moreover, while employers have to pay Social Security, federal unemployment and Medicaid taxes on their American workers, these taxes don’t apply to foreign workers. So employers save about 8 percent on the wages of each SWT worker. As a bonus, some sponsors offer free overseas trips to employers who hire large numbers of SWT workers.
At a time of recession and record youth unemployment in the United States, when elected officials declare their determination to help create jobs for American workers, SWT has plenty of critics who say the federal government should not offer incentives for American employers NOT to hire Americans.
One critic is Sarah Ann Smith, a mother whose son was pushed out of his dishwashing job at a restaurant by SWT workers who came to Camden, Maine. Ms. Smith tallied the effects: first week, before the arrival of 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 a former State Department Foreign Service officer, 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."
The good intentions of SWT are clear. Nearly all the SWT students I have met talk enthusiastically of their time in the United States. But its negative effects on young Americans are equally apparent. Our government’s first duty must be to Americans in need of work. SWT should be sharply curtailed.
Jerry Kammer is a senior research fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies and a Pulitzer Prize-winning former journalist. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org. This article was based on an investigative series presented by CIS, available here: Cis.org