The J-1 visa, also known as the exchange visitor visa, has its roots in the cold war. In 1961, Congress created a program for international students and professionals to travel here, with the goal of building good will for the United States in the fight against Communism. The program, which became the J-1 visa, thrives today — but not as Congress intended.
Instead, it has become the country’s largest guest worker program. Its “summer work travel” component recruits well over 100,000 international students a year to do menial jobs at dairy farms, resorts and factories — a privilege for which the Hershey’s students shelled out between $3,000 and $6,000. They received $8 an hour, but after fees and deductions, including overpriced rent for crowded housing, they netted between $1 and $3.50 an hour. Hershey’s once had its own unionized workers packing its candy bars, starting at $18 to $30 an hour. Now the company outsources distribution to a non-union company that hires most of its workers from the J-1 program.
The Pennsylvania workers are not alone. Recent exposés by journalists and advocates have found similar abuse of J-1 visa holders at fast food restaurants, amusement parks and even strip clubs.
Though the number of J-1 visa holders admitted to the United States swelled from 28,000 in the program’s first year to more than 350,000 in 2010, and the government made minor changes to the program earlier this year, the State Department has never established a sufficient oversight system. Instead, it hands that responsibility to organizations it designates as sponsors, who profit from the arrangement and so have no incentive to report abuses.