Udall Asks for Review of Cultural Exchange Visa Program
J-1 Visa Program May Lack Sufficient Oversight to Prevent Abuse, Protect American Workers
Today, Mark Udall announced that he has sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, expressing concern about the State Department's oversight of the Exchange Visitor Program and asking for a report about what the agency is doing to prevent employers from misusing it to the detriment of U.S. workers. Colorado leads the nation in the number of foreign students employed through the program.
Created in the 1960s, the Exchange Visitor Program makes available J visas that are intended to promote educational and cultural exchange through academic, government, medical, and student travel and work programs in the United States. Employers who take part must pay qualified foreign nationals the same wages and benefits they pay U.S. workers. However, recent news and government reviews have raised numerous questions about the program, suggesting that foreign students are being hired instead of Americans for seasonal jobs at resorts, national parks and other venues - at a time when unemployment among youth is at record highs.
In his letter, Udall acknowledges that the State Department has taken action to reduce the potential for victimization of participants stemming from lax oversight and weak enforcement. But Udall adds that he remains concerned "that the program lacks sufficient oversight of program sponsors and enforcement of the protections against abuse to maintain the integrity of the cultural and educational components of the program while ensuring that American workers are not adversely affected."
Udall asks Clinton to provide an outline of the steps that the Department has taken to ensure proper oversight and enforcement "to protect against possible misuse of the visa program as it pertains to the protection of U.S. workers." Specifically, he asks for a list of the tools that the department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs utilizes to certify that the program does not adversely affect a U.S. worker, and a report assessing whether the tools are adequate.
"I...hope that we can work together to maintain the true intent of the Exchange Visitor Program as an educational and cultural exchange that can serve as an important diplomatic tool while also protecting the interests of American workers," Udall concludes in his letter.
A full copy of the letter follows:
The Honorable Hillary Clinton
United States Department of State
2201 C Street, NW
Washington, DC 20520
Dear Secretary Clinton:
Approximately 50 years ago, the U.S. Congress authorized the U.S. Department of State (Department) to create a program that promoted cultural and educational exchange as a tool to enhance our diplomatic ties abroad. The Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act of 1961 (P.L. 87-256), more commonly known as the Fulbright-Hays Act, set the foundation for the Department's Exchange Visitor Program, which has grown tremendously over the program's history.
As you know, The Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (BECA) oversees cultural exchange programs that wish to utilize J visas to sponsor nonimmigrant participants. In doing so, they must satisfy certain criteria, which include assurances that the program is not to fill staff vacancies or adversely affect U.S. workers.
In the inaugural year of the Exchange Visitor Program, the Department issued fewer than 50,000 visas for purposes of educational and cultural exchange. Since then, the number of cultural exchange visas has risen exponentially to more than 300,000 J visas. For at least the last five years, the summer work category of the program has consistently received more than one-third of visas issued. This subcategory, like others in the program, requires that the visa holder receive the same pay and benefits from the employer as U.S. workers in the same or similar position in concert with the overall program requirement that the visa holders' work will not adversely affect U.S. workers.
Despite the Exchange Visitor Program's policies that include written protections to ensure that the activities performed remain consistent with the educational and cultural goals of the visa program, several government and independent reviews of the Exchange Visitor Program over the last several years have indicated that oversight and enforcement are weak and that the BECA was unable to sufficiently monitor the program. Though I was encouraged by the Department's recent efforts to address the potential victimization of program participants through a recently issued rule (76 FR 23177), I remain concerned that the program lacks sufficient oversight of program sponsors and enforcement of the protections against abuse to maintain the integrity of the cultural and educational components of the program while ensuring that American workers are not adversely affected.
In this vein, I request that you provide an outline of the steps that the Department has taken to ensure proper oversight and enforcement to protect against possible misuse of the visa program as it pertains to the protection of U.S. workers. More specifically, what are the tools that the BECA utilizes to certify that the program does not adversely affect a U.S. worker? And, are these tools adequate in your estimation?
I appreciate your attention to this matter and hope that we can work together to maintain the true intent of the Exchange Visitor Program as an educational and cultural exchange that can serve as an important diplomatic tool while also protecting the interests of American workers.