The scandal-plagued J-1 visa program annually imports 100,000 low-wage and low-tax seasonal workers for use by McDonald’s, Holiday Inn, Food Lion, Disney, and many other seasonal companies.
The huge shot of “Summer Work Travel” labor arrives each year to fill seasonal jobs in holiday resorts, hotels, and harvests, and it allows companies to reduce the recruitment of young Americans for seasonal jobs.
The program is run by State Department officials, and is justified as an international cultural exchange which will benefit America. In practice, there is little cultural exchange because most of the J-1 workers spend their days and nights cleaning hotel rooms, gutting fish in Alaska, or selling items to tourists — while also working to pay off their visa fees. The imported J-1 workers do get a taste of American life for a few months, but for many it is the sour taste of being exploited, overworked, and swindled — or in a few cases, even marketed as prostitutes — by labor brokers and by employers.
In January 2017, agency officials working for former President Barack Obama drafted regulations to protect the J-1 workers.
President Donald Trump’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is finally reviewing those J-1 reforms. The draft regulation “aims to further protect the health, safety, and welfare of exchange visitors on the SWT Program, amends eligibility requirements for participation in the SWT Program, and places additional restrictions and requirements on sponsors implementing the SWT Program,” says the OMB website.
Trump’s deputies are under intense pressure from companies seeking more foreign labor to suppress the wage raises in Trump’s go-go economy said Jessica Vaughan, policy director at the Center for Immigration Studies. Whenever reforms are proposed, she said, “the industries which make money off of this descend like bees on honey, and they all promise to clean up their act — and no-one ever does — [and] token reforms are made and it is back to business as usual.”
The 13 labor programs within the J-1 program are managed by the state department “which doesn’t care about them, completely neglects its responsibilities for oversight for too many years, only makes changes when it is shamed once things go wrong, and has no skillset for running labor programs,” Vaughan said.
GOP-affliliated donors oppose fixes, she said, and Democratic legislators “don’t care about the American workers who are harmed by these programs. [Democrats] simply want to reform these programs so the foreign workers are treated better and so more could come — and perhaps stay on.”
The program may also be harmful for the supposed mission of cultural exchange, Vaughan said. Foreign youths “get exploited by these programs [so], if anything, we get negative public diplomary results because kids come from other countries, have horrible experiences, and then go back [home] and share the bad experience with their friends and families.”
But there is some chance for reform because the program is being overseen by Marie Royce, who was confirmed in March 2018 as Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs, Vaughan said. “There are so many opportunities for reform that the assistant secretary could undertake,” she said, but “most of the [13 programs within the J-1 visa] need to be eliminated, and those that are not eliminated, need to be managed.”
In 2015, the J-1 program imported 333,000 workers via 13 programs. In 2014, the J-1 program imported 90,000 SWT workers, 23,000 interns, 20,000 camp counselors, 16,000 au pairs, 10,000 trainers, 2,000 doctors, 20,000 university academics, 1,440 teachers, and 9,700 “trainees.”
The J-1 visa is one of the largest visa-worker programs alongside the 1.3 million-plus college-graduate employees in the white-collar H-1B, H4EAD, TN, L-1, and OPT programs, and the 600,000 service and field employees in the J-1, H-2A, and H-2B programs.
The various programs keep a resident population of at least 1.9 million foreign temporary workers in U.S. jobs.
The 2018 army of 104,512 “Summer Work Travel” J-1 workers was roughly equal to the annual number of resident laborers in the H-2B program, and roughly equal to the 100,000 new arrivals in the H-1B program for foreign college graduates.
The J-1 program has been periodically exposed by left-wing groups and media, but largely ignored by centrist outlets.
In July, the International Labor Recruitment Working Group (ILRWG) posted a report which used Freedom of Information Act rules to expose the major companies which hire the J-1 cheap labor. The report, titled, Shining A Light on Summer Work, said:
The brands that employed the most J-1 visa holders through the SWT program are large corporations such as McDonald’s, Disney, and Food Lion … at least 33 separate companies hired J-1 SWT workers for positions related to the Holiday Inn brand in 2015 … employers are exempt from paying certain payroll taxes for J-1 SWT workers, including Medicare, Social Security, and federal unemployment taxes. The resulting savings can act as an incentive for employers to hire J-1 SWT workers instead of similarly situated U.S. workers.
The ILRWG report shows how companies use the J-1 program alongside many other seasonal visa-worker programs — especially the H-2B, H-2A programs — to avoid spiking their payrolls costs during summer According to the report:
One example of a company using both the SWT and H-2B visa programs in 2015 was Six Flags, which filed labor certifications with DOL to hire 255 H-2B workers to work in food service and as amusement attendants. They were also one of the biggest employers in the SWT program that year, hiring 1,580 J-1 SWT workers, likely to perform similar work to the H-2B employees.
Disney hired 2,355 J-1 SWT workers in 2015, a staggering number considering that Disney is also known to hire workers through a variety of other temporary work visa programs—including vocational students on M visas, intra-company transferees with L-1 visas, H-2B workers in non-agricultural jobs, trainees with H-3 visas, and treaty investors with E-2 visas—as well as having successfully lobbied for the creation of its own temporary work visa program, the Q visa. In 2015, 1,900 Q visas were issued by DOS. Although data are not available to confirm if all 1,900 were hired by Disney companies in 2015, it is likely that at least a significant share—approximately two-thirds, according to previous years— became Disney employees. According to an estimate by Professor Kit Johnson, Disney saves $19 million per year on labor costs by using the Q visa, in addition to the $15 million they save through J-1 hires.
The Q visa is described here.
Many employers in the J-1 program underpay their recruits, say left-wing activists. “In June, my team and I headed to the boardwalk in Ocean City, Maryland, where we spoke with over a hundred of these young men and women,” said an August 2019 op-ed by Rachel Micah-Jones, the executive director of the left-wing Centro de los Derechos del Migrante group, which advocates for visa workers, including those in the TN visa for college graduates in Mexico and Canada. She continued:
Some workers reported needing to have more than one job at a time in order to make ends meet or having to find jobs on their own. Time to engage in cultural activities is minimal at best, and housing is inhumane; we visited a warehouse that boarded dozens of men and women at once.
A 2014 report by the pro-migration Southern Poverty Law Center said:
Many students placed in housekeeping jobs work alone or in teams of two cleaning rooms all day, and often must meet a high quota of rooms to avoid suspension or firing. Cultural exchange takes a backseat to the pressure of meeting these quotas and making enough money simply to survive. Many students say they did not have the energy to seek out cultural exchange activities after work.
Medalit, a J-1 SWT student from Peru who cleaned hotel rooms at a high-end resort casino in Biloxi, Miss., complained of back pain, skin rashes and overwhelming physical exhaustion that prevented her from doing anything after work.
“My paycheck for 67 hours of work was only for $189.29 because my employer deducted $300 for housing,” she said. “I wanted to take a break from the job, but I couldn’t. There was no opportunity to rest when you make so little money. We needed to work hard and clean a lot of rooms to make enough money to survive.”
Samantha (not her real name), a student from Jamaica, worked in teams of two with other J-1 students at a Microtel hotel in Gulf Shores, Ala. The students had to clean 22 rooms per day. She spent long hours cleaning bathrooms and mopping floors. Her ankles were swollen from standing all day. Her wrists hurt from lifting mattresses and changing sheets. She received only a 10-minute break for lunch — just enough time to buy something from a vending machine.
Her wage of $7.25 per hour barely covered basic necessities. She had little money left to enjoy cultural experiences, such as seeing a movie or shopping. She was even forced to find a second job to make ends meet and help her parents pay the loans they had taken out to pay the program’s fees.
“In 2018, workers at Disney fought for and won a great contract with big wage increases,” said Eric Clinton, president of the Central Florida AFL-CIO and president of UNITE HERE Local 362. He continued:
Before that, many [J-1 workers] had been homeless, having to work multiple jobs, or go to food pantries to survive as the cost of living went up and up in Orlando. So we know what it’s like for many of the visa workers at Disney who aren’t protected by a union contract. They live in our communities, and many of them are living eight to a room, paying outrageous fees to recruiters, and terrified of getting fired because they’re in debt.
At the same time, these are thousands of jobs that could be living wage union jobs for local workers.
Many J-1 workers are mistreated by labor brokers who rent them to bigger companies for work at parks, hotels, and beachfront shops. One extreme example of an abusive labor broker was announced by the Department of Justice in May 2016:
Jeffrey Jason Cooper, 46, of Miami Beach, Florida, was charged late yesterday in an 11-count indictment in the Southern District of Florida with sex trafficking and attempted sex trafficking by fraud, wire fraud, importation of aliens for prostitution or immoral purposes and use of a facility of interstate commerce to operate a prostitution enterprise.
According to allegations in the indictment and criminal complaint, Cooper recruited foreign students from Kazakhstan through the State Department’s Summer Work Travel Program, using false and fraudulent promises of clerical jobs in a fictitious yoga studio in order to bring the students into the United States and advertise them to customers of his prostitution and erotic massage enterprise. As alleged in the indictment and complaint, Cooper recruited the foreign university students on false pretenses, knowing that no such yoga studio existed.
The CEOs and investors have a rational self-serving argument for the J-1 program: It allows them to hire many seasonal workers who can work from May to almost October with have to offer high pay to recruit American youths and students. Moreover, the extra seasonal pay would trigger demands for pay raises from full time employes, so drive up their national payroll costs. In turn, higher costs would reduce customers, likely forcing the closure of some hotel, theme parks, restaurants.
“The program is a big deal for us,” Andrew Todd, a tourist industry CEO told Travel Weekly in 2017. Todd runs Xanterra Parks & Resorts, which operates hotels and concessions at the national parks. He continued:
If you want to work in a national park in a remote location you have to be willing to pack a suitcase and come and stay for the entire summer. For example, Yellowstone opens in the spring and closes in the fall. We ratchet it up and hire 3,500 seasonal employees for the summer season … We engage around 800 of these students in our parks in the summer. If you took 800 employees out of parks that are already understaffed to begin with, that would be a huge problem.
Many small firms also use the workers. In Keystone, S.D., for example, restaurants and bars import J-1 workers to cater to tourists visiting Mount Rushmore. In April 2019, South Dakota News Watch reported:
[David ] Holmgren owns and operates a Subway restaurant in Hill City and a Subway, Dairy Queen and the Holy Terror Coffee & Fudge shop in Keystone.
Holmgren has only two full-time employees, so he relies extensively on the J-1 non-immigrant Work & Travel program to provide him with employees during the high season. This year, Holmgren is hosting about 35 student workers under the program, and he promotes their presence on video screens in his restaurants that show a photo and give some background on the guest workers. About 265 of the J-1 participants will work in Keystone this summer, he said.
In September 2017, travel industry CEOs lobbied administration officials to exempt the J-1 program from the President’s “Buy American, Hire American” Inauguration Day promise, Travel Weekly reported in 2017:
Nancy Gardella, executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce [said Americna students] “… are gone before our second-biggest holiday weekend of the year.”
Gardella said it would be an “absolute catastrophe” for the Vineyard as well as the neighboring island of Nantucket and Cape Cod to lose the J-1 workers.
“We would be crippled without them,” she said. “Places would go out of business, they would be unable to open and function. When I tell you that our available workforce cannot fill these jobs, I am not overstating that in any way, shape or form. We simply do not have the available workforce to take these jobs.”
But the free market is intended to help Americans sell their labor at fair-market rates, and the companies’ predictable recruitment and payroll problems should not be solved by artificial government interventions, such as a supply of subsidized foreign workrs who don’t even have to pay retirement and healthcare taxes, said Vaughan, who added, “What we don’t hear about are the American workers who are displaced by the programs.”