The Department of State’s largest exchange program may face reduction or even elimination.
The Trump Administration is currently reviewing separate recommendations from DHS and the Department of Labor on whether (and how) to restrict the use of nonimmigrant visas that permit work in the U.S. These deliberations focus on the several varieties of H visas, L visas (intercompany transfers), F student visas that allow Optional Practical Training (OPT) after completion of studies, and the J-1 visa which all exchange participants use.
A lot of public diplomacy happens on the J visa, and there is no consideration of restricting the visa’s use for federally funded exchanges such as Fulbright, International Visitor, and competitively selected high school exchanges such as FLEX (former Soviet republics) and Kennedy-Lugar YES (countries with significant Muslim populations).
What appear be at risk are the Department of State’s unfunded inbound exchange programs such as internship, professional training, camp counselor, au pair, and, perhaps especially, Summer Work Travel (SWT). All of these program categories share a similar design: participants are permitted to earn money to defray the cost of their experiences and to allow them to learn by doing. Many of these future leaders could not afford to come to the U.S. for study or to vacation, and this program design ‘democratizes’ access to an exchange experience.
With approximately 105,000 participants annually, SWT is the Department of State’s largest exchange program, and one of its few programs designed for undergraduates.
David Bier of the Cato Institute provides background on the program and the White House deliberations in his May 27 piece, “Facts About the Summer Work Travel Program”.
As Mr. Bier’s piece points out, there is no evidence that SWT participants take jobs from Americans, and in fact data suggest exactly the opposite. In popular resort areas like the Wisconsin Dells or Ocean City, Maryland, there simply aren’t enough local workers to meet seasonal staffing needs. Employers and local officials have told me repeatedly that the presence of international students mean businesses can be open longer, and that all their workers, including the Americans, thus get more hours.
In the current climate, combining international students and work raises a dangerous political flag, and despite the program’s reach and effectiveness, it is receiving careful federal scrutiny.
The U.S. exchange community is responding. A letter writing campaign led by the Alliance for International Exchange has generated over 5000 letters, and American sponsor organizations and employers are reaching out to Congress and the White House to support the program. You can send a letter to President Trump and to your Senators and Representative in minutes through the following link: https://www.alliance-exchange.org/featured-post/letter-to-president-trump/
Michael McCarry served for 21 years as Executive Director of the Alliance for International Exchange, an association of U.S. exchange sponsors. Earlier, as a USIA Foreign Service Officer, he served overseas in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and Beijing, and in Washington as staff director of the Bureau for Educational and Cultural Affairs. He currently serves as Senior Advisor to Cenet, a Missouri-based exchange sponsor, and as a trustee of the EF Foundation.