Friday, September 22, 2017

Serving Ice Cream Isn't a Cultural Exchange

The Editors,

The U.S. benefits from foreign visitors, but let's be honest about why they're here.

Image from article, with caption: "soft-serve power"

President Donald Trump's one big idea about immigration -- that there's too much of it -- is so wrong that it tends to obscure some of the smaller things the administration is trying to get right. Even minor changes could help restore public confidence in an immigration system that is too easily abused.

A case in point is the exchange-visitor program, through which 300,000 people receive visas to the U.S. every year. Created more than five decades ago, the program is designed to allow young people from other countries to gain exposure to American culture. About one-third of those who come on these visas, known as J-1s, are students, professors and academic researchers. The rest enter the labor force: as au pairs, camp counselors, corporate interns and medical residents. 

Over the last decade, roughly 1 million foreigners have taken part in a four-month program that places international students in seasonal, service-industry jobs: working in amusement parks, swimming pools, ice cream parlors, ski resorts. Participants pay anywhere from $1,500 to $5,000 in fees to placement services, which match them with businesses across the country. 

In principle, the program provides a way for young people to finance their travel, improve their English and meet working Americans. The reality often falls short. Participants have reported being victimized by predatory sponsors, abused by employers, and recruited by cyber-criminals. A Government Accountability Office report found that the government has "limited ability to protect participants from excessive and unexpected costs"; nor can it assure that "participants' experiences of U.S. culture align with its public diplomacy goals." The report found that 40 percent of summer workers don't engage in any cultural activities outside of work at all. 

The Trump administration is reportedly considering the elimination of five categories of J-1 visas. In response, congressional defenders of the programs insist that changes receive a public airing and go through the formal rule-making process. 

That's a reasonable demand. But lawmakers should also use the opportunity to acknowledge an obvious if inconvenient truth: Many J-1 visa holders are guest workers, not participants in cultural exchanges, and should be treated as such. Congress should push for sensible reforms that bring J-1 regulations in line with guest-worker programs like the H-2B visa, which brings in 95,000 foreign laborers for seasonal work. This would mean requiring employers to advertise job openings domestically before hiring J-1 visa holders and to provide workers a prevailing sector wage. 

The exchange-visitor program is far from the only work-based immigration program that has strayed from its original intent. But attracting foreigners to visit, study and work in the U.S. remains vital -- not just to America's economy but to its global influence. Transparency about the real purpose of the many visa programs the country offers is the best way to ensure that they survive.


To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley .

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