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419917_320251078030978_1819806203_n (1)Immigration bill targets cultural exchange programs

The Senate immigration debate has unleashed a little-known advocacy group: The foreign nanny lobby.

Au pair agencies have joined summer camp operators, hotels and an array of other companies that rely on cultural-exchange programs to provide their businesses with overseas labor to lobby against provisions in the Senate immigration bill aimed at regulating recruitment practices.

The immigration measure, now being debated on the Senate floor, would require third-party brokers and others who bring foreign workers to register with the U.S. government and would bar those recruiting agencies from collecting any fees from foreign workers. Other provisions also could make companies that sponsor foreign workers liable for violations committed by overseas subcontractors.

Labor and anti-trafficking groups say the measures are needed to better protect workers and come after highly publicized cases in which foreign college students living in Pennsylvania complained they paid high fees to recruiters and instead of gaining cultural enrichment performed menial work at a chocolate packing plant and fast-food restaurants.

The students’ protests put a spotlight on the U.S. State Department-run program, which brought nearly 92,000 students to the USA last year on “summer-work travel” visas and another 13,789 foreign au pairs, federal records show.

Critics argue the Cold War-era exchange program has morphed into a source of cheap, foreign labor with too little federal oversight.

The summer-work travel program is designed make it easier for foreign college students to defray their expenses by working in the USA while having the chance to learn more about the country, interact with Americans and improve their English skills. Employers who hire students through the summer-work program do not have to first offer the job to an American worker. Businesses also save money because they don’t have to pay unemployment taxes, Medicare or Social Security.

“This program is a scam,” Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said on the Senate floor this week. “It is not a cultural-exchange program. It is displacing young American workers at a time of double-digit employment among young people, and it is putting downward pressure on wages at a time when the American people are working longer hours for lower wages.”

Corporations that use these visas say existing regulations are sufficient to deal with a handful of bad actors and argue the new requirements jeopardize their businesses by not allowing them to pass on the cost of administering the program to the foreign visa holders.

“If students were being widely abused, would 100,000 come every year?” said Michael McCarry, executive director of the Alliance for International Educational & Cultural Exchange, a trade group. “I don’t think so.”

Supporters of the program have stepped up their lobbying in recent weeks.

Au pair agencies are rallying parents to send form letters to senators to exempt au pairs and other cultural-exchange visa holders from the proposed regulations. One recent letter to host families complained that the bill treats au pairs as ” ‘workers’ not as the cultural-exchange participants they are.”

In Wisconsin Dells, a popular vacation area in the south-central part of the Wisconsin, about 200 workers â?? or nearly a third of the workforce at Noah’s Ark water park and its 300-room motel â?? were hired through the summer-exchange visa program this year, said Amy Muller, the park’s director of marketing.

Muller has sent letters to her state’s U.S. senators, urging them to block the new regulations.

Starting pay for U.S. and foreign workers alike is $8 an hour, she said. Muller said the water park “recruits at every college and high school we can” but can’t find enough American workers willing to work at a small-town park that’s only open three months each year.

The State Department recently tightened employment restrictions, barring students, for instance, from being placed to work at fish canneries and factories. Susan Pittman, a department spokeswoman, said the agency also has increased the number of surprise visits it makes to work sites.

Last week, the agency sanctioned GeoVisions, a New Hampshire corporation that arranged for foreign students to work at several McDonald’s franchises in Pennsylvania. The federal government imposed a 15% reduction on the number of students GeoVisions can sponsor. The restriction will remain in place for two years.

The State Department’s action came after more than a dozen students staged protests in March, claiming they were exploited by the owner of the franchises, Andy Cheung. One of the college students, Jorge Rios, 27, said he paid $1,200 to GeoVisions and another $1,800 in travel expenses and other costs to come to the USA from Argentina under the exchange program.

Rios said he was forced to live with five other men in an unfinished basement owned by Cheung, worked fewer hours than he had been promised and paid $75 a week to his employer for rent â?? about half his weekly earnings. He said when he complained, restaurant managers told him: ” ‘We are a phone call away from sending you back home.'”

Earlier this year, McDonald’s announced it had cut ties with Cheung. Neither GeoVisions officials nor Cheung returned phone calls Thursday.

McCarry, of the industry alliance, said “it’s wrong to say these problems are emblematic of the program.”

“The program is about cultural exchange,” he said. “The work enables the experience, but doesn’t define it.”

Rios, now back in school in Argentina, said Congress should weigh more restrictions. “I think it’s a dangerous thing to mix diplomacy with business,” he said. “It’s as if the United States government is the recruiter of a cheap labor workforce.”