No Help Wanted: Unions Shut Out Foreign Students

Union-backed provisions in the Senate immigration bill would punish organizations that coordinate visits for foreign students who spend summers traveling and working in America.

Unions claim that the students are “exploited,” but the real effect of the changes would be to crush U.S. sponsor groups and those businesses that depend on students for summer work.

Currently, the Summer Work and Travel Program allows for foreign university students to enter the United States on J-1 visas for summer vacation in order, according to the State Department, to “be exposed to the people and way of life in the United States.” The program functions as a diplomatic effort to spread good will and American culture around the globe.

Students must contact a U.S. sponsor, which vets their English skills and coordinates their stay. Participants pay their way, but can travel and work freely in the U.S. for 3 months.

Work authorization upsets unions because students don’t stay long enough to organize and pay dues to unions. The Senate bill, negotiated by the AFL-CIO, would effectively terminate the program by designating students, called “exchange visitors” (p. 1505), as “foreign labor,” which adds major regulations on their employers, such as paying airfare from China or Ukraine.

“This classification will kill the program,” Tom Areton, director at one sponsor organization, Cultural Homestay International, told this writer. “No one is going to pay to fly a student halfway around the world to serve ice cream or be a lifeguard, nanny, or camp counselor.” In 2012, he noted, 12,600 students worked as camp counselors. “Without them, I don’t know how these camps will be able to survive.”

But the bill doesn’t just target employers—an amendment from the union-friendly Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) would also tax U.S. sponsors $500 per participant. U.S. sponsors charge $650 per student, $150 of which goes to health insurance. Because the change forbids passing along the tax’s cost to students, sponsors would be left with nothing.

“This bill will crush the company that I built up for the last 33 years, but the authors never consulted us and just did what the unions wanted,” Areton continued. “We will have to let go 100 employees and 200 part-timers. Many of these employees just started families and bought their first homes. It makes me sick just thinking about having to let them go.”

Almost 80 other U.S. sponsoring organizations are in the same position.  But unions argue that businesses exploit the students, and so the program should be eliminated regardless. “The J-1 program has been the site of some of the most egregious cases of guestworker abuse,” claimed Jennifer Rosenbaum, policy director of the National Guestworker Alliance (NGA), an anti-guest worker union, recently in Roll Call.

Ms. Rosenbaum cites a case where NGA recruited 12 of 385 students who worked at a Hershey’s packing plant. NGA convinced them that they could sue and get their travel expenses covered if they protested and filed a State Department complaint only days before they returned home.

Those students recruited other participants to stage a walkout for a day—unions say “hundreds” protested; the sponsor says “about 20” with others bussed in. The union then filed a complaint, alleging “workplace rights” violations against the 12 students, which included “heavy lifting” and wages that were “low” despite being above minimum wage.

Terminating a program with 70,000 participants due to one or two incidents is senseless no matter what. But even in this supposedly-“egregious” case, almost all students refused to join the complaint—and with good reason: J-1 participants are not helpless guest workers, but university students that come to experience America, not to work. They choose to work to offset costs and can stop at any time or find other jobs without fear of deportation, as their sponsor helped several do.

“I disagree with the actions of these students,” said one Hershey’s student in a State Department statement. “We knew everything beforehand. The job offer and description were clearly written… We have the right to choose a job, and if they did not like it, [they] should have chosen something else.”

Nonetheless, the staged outcry led the State Department to ban the U.S. sponsor and manual labor-style jobs, cutting the number of J-1 visas in half. This isn’t good enough for unions, who are bent on keeping students from contributing to – and learning from – America’s greatness.