State Department Restricts J-1 Summer Work Travel Program Due to Abuses

The U.S. State Department this week announced a moratorium on applications for prospective new sponsors for the J-1 Summer Work Travel Program. Existing sponsors may continue to operate under their current designations, in compliance with their regulations, but will not be able to expand their number of program participants beyond their actual 2011 participant program size.  The announcement is yet one more example of the U.S. government getting more active on employer enforcement in regards to immigration matters.

Established in 1963, the J-1 Summer Work Travel Program creates an immigration means for allowing foreign post-secondary students to come to the United States during their major academic break for a maximum of four months, to travel and work, largely in unskilled positions.

Unfortunately, there have been multiple reports of employers abusing the program. Most notably, over 300 J-1 participants walked out of a Hershey plant in Pennsylvania in August, complaining of unfair wages and working conditions. J-1 students complained of diminutive pay, unfair rent deductions, long hours in assembly line work, and heavy lifting.  Some students enlisted local labor groups to help lodge their complaints with the media. Some students said that the employers were using their availability to get around paying the prevailing wage to U.S. workers.

The Department of State candidly acknowledges employer abuses of the program in its Federal Register announcement of the moratorium (Fed Reg. Vol. 76, No. 215, 11-7-2011).  Approved sponsors act as the middle man between U.S. employers and the foreign students. Sponsors are supposed to check in on their students on a monthly basis, to monitor their welfare and whereabouts. However, it seems that once the sponsors arrange a place of employment in the U.S., they have frequently failed to follow up. Perhaps they look the other way, or just don’t have the built-in fee resources for adequately monitoring students. The Hershey J-1 students specifically made demands for refunds of their program fees.

In its notice, the State Department says since 2010 it has been conducting a comprehensive review of the Summer Work Travel program, which resulted in substantial changes to the existing regulations. In light of this year’s complaints, however, more changes will be coming.