Tackling Youth Unemployment With Amendments to the Senate Immigration Bill

As The Huffington Post has reported, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is introducing three amendments to the Senate’s comprehensive immigration bill (S.744). Two are intended to create and open up jobs for young people, and the third would prohibit large companies that have announced mass layoffs from hiring temporary foreign workers. Sanders is rightly concerned about youth unemployment (which averaged 16.2 percent nationwide last year, and 13.1 percent in Vermont) and the massive expansion of current temporary foreign worker programs and the creation of new ones in the Senate bill. He’s also correct to see the connection between these two phenomena.

On the Senate floor Tuesday, Sanders discussed the inconsistency between the country’s persistently high youth unemployment and the Summer Work Travel (SWT) program. The SWT program was created to facilitate cultural exchanges, by allowing foreign college students to work and travel in the United States. But over time it has become a large guestworker program run by the State Department without the necessary basic rules to protect workers. Unlike other programs that allow foreign residents to work here temporarily, the SWT program does not require that guestworkers be paid a prevailing wage, or require employers to first recruit, or even advertise, jobs to U.S. workers before they can hire guestworkers on J-1 nonimmigrant visas.

The amendments proposed are common sense and should not be controversial. However, business groups are likely to oppose them. As recent stories by USA Today and the Associated Press have detailed, J-1 sponsors and employers are engaging in a massive lobbying campaign to keep senators from fixing or improving the multiple guestworker programs that exist under the false guise of cultural exchange.

The employers make it clear that the J-1 SWT program is in fact a guestworker program. They are explicit about the fact that they use it as a labor recruitment tool, not as a cultural exchange program. Shaun Tofson, a human resources director from a Wisconsin Dells resort, said that if she didn’t have J-1 workers “parts of her company would have to close.” This employer is claiming “there are not enough workers in the local area,” while admitting that there are potential workers an hour away in Madison, but, “they wouldn’t drive an hour for a job that pays about $9 an hour.”

Let’s step back and consider what Tofson is saying here. Jobs at her resort do not pay enough to attract workers from an hour away. So the obvious solution for them is to hire foreign guestworkers rather than to provide housing or transportation to kids from Madison. Why is it an obvious choice to prefer J-1 guestworkers? Because employees provided to businesses through the SWT program can be paid the minimum wage, have to pay for their own housing, transportation, and health insurance, and cost the employer less than a U.S. worker because J-1 workers are exempt from federal payroll taxes. The fact that the unemployment rate for 16 to 24 years olds in Wisconsin was 13.1 percent last year probably never crossed Tofson’s mind.

Two amendments proposed by Sen. Sanders could help tackle youth unemployment and fix an abusive guestworker program.

The amendment titled “Jobs for Youth” would create a $1.5 billion fund to create jobs for young low-income workers. The fund would be created by a $10 fee—the cost of two lattes—levied on some employment-based green cards and many of the nonimmigrant visa categories that currently exist and/or would be created under the bill. Considering that most employers and applicants for visas and green cards already pay hundreds to thousands of dollars in visa fees, $10 will represent a nominal percentage of the total fees paid. Thus, it’s hard to think of any logical reason to oppose putting thousands of disadvantaged and unemployed kids to work for that price.

The other amendment would prohibit employment in the SWT program, but not eliminate the program. Though the amendment is a valid attempt to fix the program and deserves support, I would have proposed something a bit different. Because the “work” part of Summer Work Travel exists so that participants in the program can have some money to do the “travel” part, eliminating the work component would turn the program into what amounts to a summer-long tourist visa. Instead, it makes more sense to limit the size of the program and tie its size to the youth unemployment rate, or to prohibit SWT workers from being employed in states with high youth unemployment. However, the easiest way to open up 100,000 jobs for young people and to end the worker abuse, exploitation, and human trafficking that has resulted from a large, poorly regulated guestworker program housed in an inappropriate agency, is to eliminate the SWT program altogether.

I wholeheartedly agree with those who argue that international cultural exchanges are important to the United States and enrich our population in myriad ways. But even if the SWT program is eliminated, a large cultural exchange program with 15 program categories will remain. Approximately 250,000 new exchange visitors and their spouses will continue to visit the United States every year on J-1 and J-2 visas—but without the exploitation facilitated by the SWT program.