GOP Presidential candidate front-runner Donald Trump has revealed he plans to cut the J-1 visa program if elected US President.
The J-1 Summer Work Travel Program has for many years been a rite of passage for Irish third-level students who travel to the US during the summer months to work mainly in the retail and hospitality industries.
Of the 300,000 worldwide participants on the program in 2014, 8,000 were Irish students and more than 150,000 have traveled from Ireland over the past 50 years.
The J-1 program has faced some criticism in the last number of years and even Irish students have faced negative stories in the US media while participating in the program, among them, a New York Times article following the Berkeley balcony collapse tragedy that suggested Irish students had become an embarrassment to their country while in the US.
This criticism, however, is no basis to terminate a program that has not only brought adventure and travel to the lives of students worldwide, setting them up with valuable work and life experience to bring back to their native countries, but has allowed them to add immensely to the US workforce.
It should instead be seen as a trigger for reform of the well-established and generally successful cultural exchange and immigration program. Reform that Trump is by no means properly addressing.
As outlined in his policy for immigration reform, posted to his campaign website last weekend, the billionaire and former reality TV participant has maintained his aggressive attitude towards immigration control in the US, a policy which he has already established as a controversial cornerstone to his candidacy and one which many cite as a reason for his success in the early stages of his campaign.
He never mentions immigrants like Sergey Brin from Russia, co-founder of Google; Andrew Grove, founder of Intel, from Hungary; or Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State, from Germany. It is always the poorest and least able to defend themselves.
In a policy document entitled, “Immigration reform that will make America great again”, Trump states that “we are the only country in the world whose immigration system puts the needs of other nations ahead of our own”.
In order to “make America great again,” he spells out a number of measures he’ll enforce in order to “control the admission of new low-earning workers.”
Doing so, he believes will “help wages grow, get teenagers back to work, aid minorities’ rise into the middle class, help schools and communities falling behind, and to ensure our immigrant members of the national family become part of the American dream.”
One of these measures includes ridding the US of the “new low-earning” and “guest workers” employed in the US as part of the J-1 Visa program. According to a 2015 U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement report, 200,799 participants enrolled in the program in February of this year, from countries all over the world, bringing a large number of temporary workers into the US workforce.
Trump, however, wishes to replace the cultural exchange with a program for inner city youth. In his policy, he states: “The J-1 visa jobs program for foreign youth will be terminated and replaced with a resume bank for inner city youth provided to all corporate subscribers to the J-1 visa program.”
This policy step comes after criticism of the program in recent years and revelations of exploitation of J-1 students. Vocativ reports that although it costs the average J-1 student around $3,000 to come to the US, many of them earn less than the minimum wage while here, with au pairs earning as little as $10,179 a year.
In 2013, NPR also reported on the poor employment and accommodation conditions of a number of foreign college students working for McDonald's, seven of whom were housed in a basement, made sleep in bunk beds and were given just 25 hours a week to work but required to stay on call at all times—far from the educational cultural exchange model on which the J-1 program was originally established.
Unfortunately, according to a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2014, the J-1 program does not require sponsors to pay their workers a wage that’s certified by the Department of Labor to protect the wages of U.S. workers.
This in turn means that some employers may take on J-1 students knowing that they can pay them as little as possible and in doing so, US workers could be overlooked for jobs. This is exactly why the program is being targeted by Trump.
"The problems with the J-1 visa are part of a bigger picture, which is that guest workers across the country are firstly exploited, and secondly used to undercut local workers and turn jobs into temporary and low-wage jobs," Saket Soni, president of the National Guestworker Alliance, told NPR.
On the face of it, the termination of the J-1 program could be regarded as commendable. Few Irish students would wish to think they are displacing a US citizen in dire need of employment and the chance to earn a wage, as Trump claims they are: “Today, nearly 40% of black teenagers are unemployed. Nearly 30% of Hispanic teenagers are unemployed … The influx of foreign workers holds down salaries, keeps unemployment high, and makes it difficult for poor and working class Americans – including immigrants themselves and their children – to earn a middle class wage.”
It is difficult to see, however, how banning Irish students visiting the US for a summer will bring down the level of all-year-round unemployment among American youth. The Irish program allows participants to visit and work in the US between May 15 and September 15—just four months of the year.
A plan to end the J1 programme - The moment Donald Trump stopped being a joke for Irish people.— Ian Wright (@ihwright) August 18, 2015
Aside from the fact that Trump also doesn’t offer a plan within this policy document as to how the “resume bank for inner city youth” would be established, many of the problems listed above, and used by Trump as adequate reasoning to cancel the program, deal with the exploitation of workers by employees, and this is where the issues lie, not with the workers themselves.
If the program was reformed to ensure that participants received a fair wage—a proper minimum wage as a US worker would require—and allowed all workers to then be hired on their merit, it would lead to a fairer system in which US workers were not overlooked simply because a foreign guest worker could be paid less.
The J-1 program is not the only area of Trump’s immigration policy where the Irish could be affected, however.
Trump has outlined a requirement for employers to hire American workers first, calling a halt on the issue of green cards and allowing employers to hire only from the domestic pool until such time as immigration levels are moderated and wages grow.
He also wishes to increase wages for foreign workers on H-1B visas and put further restrictions on temporary visas requiring that an American employee must always be hired first, dissuading employers from looking anywhere other than the domestic pool and stop employers from giving what he describes as the “coveted entry-level jobs” to cheaper workers from overseas.
If elected US President, Trump would also enhance the penalties for those who outstay their visas, end a birthright to citizenship, and deport all illegal immigrants to the US while tripling the number of Immigration and Customs Enforcement Officers and introducing a nationwide e-verify system which would allow employers to check if their employees can legally work in the US.
This policy would completely reverse the steps made by the Obama administration to work towards immigration reform that could benefit the Irish, under the current President’s belief that “nobody has contributed more to the growth and dynamism of the US economy than Irish immigrants.”
If we look at the recent IrishCentral series of participants on the J-1 year-long Work and Travel Visa, we see just a handful of the accomplished and skilled members of the Irish workforce who have temporarily relocated to work for the benefit of US companies. By terminating the J-1 visa, and putting further restrictions of other visa categories, Trump is attacking the young Irish workforce who desire to better themselves, to learn, to make a bigger impact on the world and most importantly, to work hard in the US.
For those who are here on a year-long visa, many arrive in the US unemployed, to go through the same hiring process that all young US graduates do and are, in fact, more restricted than US graduates in that some companies will not wish to take on a candidate with a temporary visa.
If Irish candidates are employed on this basis, surely it is a reflection of the caliber of the candidate and not a case of stealing a job from an US citizen who was not as suitable or as qualified for the position.
Instead of looking at everybody from outside the US as cheap labor who are willing to work for less and are looking to increase US unemployment, they need to be appreciated as capable and hard-working world citizens willing to contribute to the US and with that, workers who will help to “make America great again” .
Trump very well may believe that our “immigration system puts the needs of other nations ahead of our own” but until his policy on immigration reform begins to look at reforming immigration instead of program termination, further visa restrictions and building walls along the border, it will be an immigration system that puts the needs of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and its desire for a good soundbite ahead of our own.
Would the termination of the J-1 program benefit the US? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.