READY: Love the kids, hate the J-1 program

Mary Ready, Ready or Not

No one loves the J-1 students or has a bigger heart for them than me.

Over the last seven years, I’ve sheltered 13 of them and have helped countless more with transportation, food, medical visits, etc. Having said that, the conundrum for me is that

I wish they’d stayed at home or done something other than get involved in the J-1 international student program with its myriad abuses and negative impact on the world’s already skewed image of us.

Americans are good and generous people, and it reflects badly on us when foreign workers go home after a nightmare summer. The goal of Destin’s United Methodist, Safe Harbor Presbyterian, and other area churches is to send them back home with good memories. To their J-1 ministries, I say “Amen!”

Many will say they have no sympathy for these kids and point out how they take away American jobs, work for low pay, blah, blah, blah. They get impatient with student workers because they can’t understand their accents or low speaking voices. Unfortunately, a few folks are just plain hateful to them.

Of course, that’s not as deadly as running over them on their bicycles.

About the jobs thing: I’ve noticed “Now Hiring” signs everywhere since before the spring breakers came in March and two months BEFORE the arrival of the foreign students.

The hiring signs are still all over town, and I’ve talked with local employers who have no preference one way or the other for whom they hire. They just need help. The main advantage of the J-1 employee is that they can only work through mid-September when the summer busy season slows down, and extra workers are no longer needed.

All this to say, I want to see an end to the program that brings them here.

Because of the problems inherent in the J-1 Summer Work and Travel Visa, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ordered a complete review of the program used by U.S. businesses to hire international students for short-term employment. The investigation claimed to be committed to safeguarding “the health and welfare of the participants" and putting a stop to avenues of abuse.

Mrs. Clinton didn’t manage to accomplish much, perhaps having become embroiled in the Benghazi political scandal and decided, “What difference at this point does it make?”

Sorry, couldn’t resist.

The U.S. House Judiciary Committee's immigration subcommittee also has been reviewing the visa program, created in 1963 to allow foreign college students to spend their summer breaks living, working, and traveling in the U.S. What the committee decided was simply to disallow any new organizations to sponsor students, to limit the number of J-1 visas, and to supervise foreign sponsor organizations more closely. Their conclusion was that cases of student mistreatment are rare.

Nevertheless, the Associated Press continues to report escalating numbers of cases in which J-1 workers were put up in crowded apartments and forced to work long hours at labor-intensive jobs for $1 an hour or less, once contract fees, rent, and transportation is deducted.

Most of the exploitation of workers in the J-1 program has been blamed on unregulated, third-party labor brokers (sleazy slave masters, usually European) who “handle” the students. These creeps put them in jobs dangerously far away from the places they are forced to live, and sometimes the contractor “misplaces” their meager paychecks which somehow never turn up. Some promised restaurant jobs turn out to be strip clubs. In the worst cases, contractors take the passports of female students and force them into sex slavery.

It’s not just the labor brokers though.

I know of Destin businesses which have cheated these kids. I’d love to tell you about the major local resort that worked them hard with no breaks, let them go mid-summer in violation of their contracts, and then didn’t pay them for their last two weeks. I won't name names because my editor doesn’t need the grief.

Sometimes, the wrongdoing is on both sides. Local medical providers do not accept the students’ worthless medical insurance, for which the kids paid a big fee. So when they receive care, they often ignore the bill because they know they’ll be going back home. Out of desperation, some resort to stealing essentials like food, medicine, toothpaste, soap, and underwear. Some of them don’t get back on the plane and forfeit their college classes back home to remain here illegally and work for employers who don’t check their expired visas. Some marry Americans just for papers to allow them to stay legally.

Do I hate the program? Yes. Am I conflicted? Yes.

Will I stop helping these kids and showing them the compassion for which America is known?


Mary Ready of Destin is a twice-retired English teacher and long-time area resident. Her columns are published on Saturdays.