Another attestation to our flawed immigration system, this time the end of a great visa program that was abused to the point of disgrace.
The J-1 Summer Work and Travel program, which allows college students to visit for up to four months, is one of the State Department’s most popular visas. Participation has boomed from about 20,000 in 1996 to a peak of more than 150,000 in 2008.
The visas are issued year-round, since students come from both hemispheres on their summer breaks. They work all over the country, at theme parks in Florida and California, fish factories in Alaska and upscale ski destinations in Colorado and Montana. The influx has been especially overwhelming for some resort towns.
The State Department announced major changes to cultural-exchange programs following an investigation by the Associated Press that found widespread abuses.
The agency issued new rules for the J-1 Summer Work and Travel Program, which brings more than 100,000 foreign college students to the United States each year.
The changes are the latest in a series of steps the State Department has taken to fix the program since the 2010 AP investigation. The investigation found that some participants were working in strip clubs, not always willingly, while others were put in living and working conditions they compared to indentured servitude.
Many foreign students pay recruiters to help find employment, then don’t get work or wind up making little or no money at menial jobs. Labor recruiters charge students exorbitant rent for packing them into filthy, sparsely furnished apartments so crowded that some endure “hotbunking,” where they sleep in shifts.
Students routinely get threatened with deportation or eviction if they quit, or even if they just complain too loudly. Some resort to stealing essentials like food, toothpaste and underwear, according to police.
“The vast majority of participating students in this program find it a rewarding experience and return home safely,” the State Department said in an e-mail to the AP.
The new rules are meant to ensure that students are treated properly and that they get jobs where there will be interaction with Americans and exposure to U.S. culture.
Some of the rules are effective immediately, while others will take effect in November, including a significant one that would prohibit participants from working in “goods-producing” industries such as manufacturing, construction and agriculture.
The rules also ban participants from working in jobs in which the primary hours are between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.
“The new reforms for the Summer Work Travel program focus on strengthening protections for the health, safety and welfare of the participants, and on bringing the program back to its primary purpose, which is to provide a cultural experience for international students,” Robin Lerner, a deputy assistant secretary for the State Department, said in a statement.
The Work and Travel category allows sponsors to bring foreign university students to the US during their summer vacations to travel and work in the US . Sponsors are encouraged to select visitors who, because of their distance from the US , would most likely not be able to afford to come to the US without temporary work authorization. This is the only J-1 category in which the number of foreign nationals the sponsor helps enter the US must be the same as the number of US students it sends abroad.