Visa Exchange Program Draws Scrutiny Under Immigration Bill

As it considers a sweeping immigration bill, Congress is taking a close look at a decades-old exchange program popular with foreigners looking for summer jobs. Critics of the J-1 visa program say it can hurt U.S. job seekers at a time when youth unemployment is at 25 percent.

Landing a job at a summer camp or at an amusement park is a rite of passage for many young Americans. Those jobs also appeal to foreigners participating in a cultural exchange using J-1 visas. But with U.S. youth unemployment at 25 percent, Congress is now taking a close look at the J-1 visa exchange program.

This visa category was created decades ago to promote cultural exchange. Overseas applicants go through an American company that sponsors, screens and places them in jobs. Most work as camp counselors, au pairs or at amusement parks. Participants must return home afterwards.

Joe Davies, one of more than 170,000 such workers who are in the U.S. at any given time, came from the United Kingdom to learn about a new culture.

"I wanted to travel when I left education," he said. "I wasn't too sure on what I wanted to do and at the time I didn't have much money to go out and just work my way around the world. So I looked into the Camp America program."

Now, he works as a lifeguard at a performing arts camp called French Woods in upstate New York. Beth Schaefer, part-owner of French Woods, said the camp hires about half of its 400 employees from other countries. Foreign workers don't take jobs away from Americans, Schaefer said. In fact, they are helping make the camp a success, she said, and that helps preserve jobs for everyone.

"We hire a lot of American staff," Schaefer said. "But, for us, we're able to have people who come in who are really engaged in a different sort of way."

The idea behind the J-1 visa is to bring different cultural perspectives to the U.S. And unlike U.S. teens, foreign workers are motivated less by money and more by adventure — which can be a nice spirit to add to a camp.

Last summer, Davies made only about $1,000 for three months' work. Still, he said he enjoyed the experience and shared his British perspective with American kids.

But critics of the current immigration laws think the J-1 program is not well regulated and can hurt U.S. job seekers. Joe Hanstine, a 17-year-old from Lakewood, Pa., sees the point of the J-1 program but wants it to be more in tune with the local community.

"Maybe since our unemployment rate is so high and people are always wanting jobs, they should cut back on the foreigners for awhile," Hanstine said.

Bill Gertz, CEO of the American Institute For Foreign Study — the organization that sponsored Davies, says the proposed legislation could kill these exchange programs.

"If these students do not come into this country, this is the soft diplomacy that the U.S. really needs," he said.

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