About 400 foreign students went on strike at a Hershey's packaging plant in Pennsylvania this summer. The young men and women from Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe had come to the United States as part of the J-1 visa work-travel program created nearly 50 years ago to foster cultural exchanges. But once here, they found themselves working long hours for little pay. Those who complained were threatened with deportation and told to work harder.
Now officials with the State Department are investigating how students participating in the summer program became little more than a source of cheap labor.
Surely investigators will want to consider whether the J-1 visa program, created during the Cold War to promote America abroad, is still serving that function. They may want to ask why many of the 100,000 students who are admitted each year must incur significant debt for the privilege of coming to the U.S. to work on dairy farms and resorts or to do menial work. The students at the Pennsylvania plant said they paid between $3,000 and $6,000 for the experience. In exchange, they were paid $8 an hour — though in reality most saw little of that money because of deductions for housing and transportation.
The program is operated by the State Department, but the department depends on private groups — the sponsors who bring the students to the U.S. — to recruit and supervise students during their stays. Unlike other foreign worker programs that are monitored by the Labor Department and the Department of Homeland Security, the J-1 visa program has few rules and little oversight. Consider that the State Department has just 18 compliance officers assigned to monitor more than 100,000 J-1 visa holders. As a result, oversight of the program is left to the sponsors, who may have little incentive to report abuses.
The J-1 visa program needs fixing. The State Department ought to temporarily suspend it or move to revamp it to improve management and compliance. Otherwise, a program intended to provide cultural enrichment could be transformed into one that serves as an unofficial guest-worker program. And that isn't the American experience the J-1 visa summer program was intended to promote, nor the one students signed up for.