You Can’t “Buy American, Hire American” Without Foreign Workers

A Trump Executive Order Places Long-Standing Exchange Visa Under Threat

Since 1961, students from more than 200 countries have headed to the United States to work during the summer months under a federally sanctioned exchange program known as the J-1 visa. Under the Trump Administration’s “Buy American, Hire American” executive order — which calls for a review of U.S. immigration rules to protect the interests of American workers — the program could be under threat.

While there are various programs underneath the J-1 visa category including camp counselors, au pairs, interns, and trainees, the summer work travel program is the largest, bringing in more than 101,000 foreign students spread across every state in 2016. Nearly all of the students are stationed in tourist destinations such as beach resorts, amusement parks, and national parks and are granted work authorization in order to take on temporary and seasonal jobs usually in hospitality or retail.

Under President Trump’s “Buy American, Hire American” executive order the long-standing J-1 visa program could be terminated.

The program has received bipartisan criticism from lawmakers, including from two unlikely bedfellows, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT). In 2013, Sanders called the J-1 visa a “low-wage jobs program” to “replace young American workers with cheaper labor from overseas.

However, the program has also received bipartisan support bolstered by regional arguments that there are benefits to not only the cross-cultural exchange model that gives young people from foreign countries the opportunity to gain exposure to American culture and values, but also economic advantages to the tourist towns the students descend upon, such as filling gaps in the seasonal labor market.

Most of the roles filled by J-1 visa holders are in tourist-driven sectors that require an increase in temporary staff during the summer months. According to a recent report commissioned by the Alliance for International Exchange — a supporter of the summer work travel program — 50 percent of surveyed J-1 employers stated that an absence of the program participants would have a big, negative impact on their revenues and 25 percent reported that it would be likely or very likely that they would not be able to stay open during the season without the summer work travel program.

“50 percent of surveyed J-1 employers stated that an absence of the summer work travel program participants would have a big, negative impact on their revenues.”

Businesses in Colorado, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, Wisconsin, and Wyoming have begun voicing concerns about their ability to maintain business if the program is terminated. In Ocean City, MD, alone more than 4,000 foreign workers are employed during the summer, many as part of the summer work travel program.

A bipartisan group of senators and representatives support the summer work travel program.

There has been early bipartisan support in both the Senate and House to maintain the summer work travel program. In a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, 17 senators highlighted the program’s benefit as a diplomatic tool and stressed the reliance of many small business who depend on the program to meet their seasonal labor needs.

In a similar letter, 33 representatives publicly stated their support for the program commenting that “at a time when the values of the United States are misrepresented in many parts of the world, this program plays an ever-increasing role to correct those impressions of America.”

For now, the State Department hasn’t made any changes to the handling of J-1 visa applications. And although there is uncertainty about whether a standard period of public discussion will be formally held, reported public comments from supporters may already be working. Last month, the Senate Appropriations Committee added an amendment to a State Department spending bill mandating that any changes to the J-1 program must be transparent and seek public comment. Supporting organizations have started coalitions and petitions aimed at garnering more public support.


On a personal note, I know many New Zealanders and Australians who have benefited from taking part in the summer work travel program. The economic argument for continuation of the program is a strong one. But that aside, allowing for the exchange of young people between different countries and cultures is a way to build international understanding and empathy that can benefit us all.

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