As published in Medium on August 5, 2020.
As Congress debates another round of coronavirus relief legislation, American businesses and families continue to struggle while the coronavirus pandemic maintains its tireless chokehold on the economy. The Administration has an opportunity to support American businesses and vital public diplomacy goals. To do so, the Administration should provide meaningful exceptions to the June 22 proclamation for the J-1 Exchange Visitor Program.
On June 22, the White House issued a proclamation suspending some nonimmigrant visas, including six cultural exchange programs. This effectively ended the ability for many American families and businesses to have international visitors to the U.S. serve their unique employment needs. The proclamation reflects a faulty argument by some that exchange participants displace American workers. The data proves otherwise. The J-1 Exchange Visitor Program — a decades old program created by the U.S. State Department to promote cultural awareness and cooperation — does not displace American workers; it allows businesses to fill jobs that would otherwise remain open because there are not enough Americans available, even in times of high unemployment, like now. The Administration recently provided some exceptions to the proclamation. Because they are so narrowly drawn, the exceptions thus far are mostly inoperable.
The Au Pair program is still very much restricted under the proclamation. For more than three decades, families have been able to host au pairs as a way to support their childcare needs and benefit from a lasting cultural exchange experience. According to the State Department, approximately 20,000 young people come to the U.S. each year as au pairs. While the recent list of exceptions includes some au pair participants, they are limited to parents who are medical providers, researchers working on COVID-19, families who have children with certain medical conditions, and those that are at risk of needing public assistance. The vast majority of host families do not fall into any of these categories. Instead, many host families find themselves on the verge of a childcare crisis that may force some to choose between keeping their jobs or caring for their children. In an economic downturn not seen since the Great Depression, we need to do everything we can to support parents who are trying to stay in the workforce.
Additionally, small businesses that rely on seasonal income to sustain their operations year-round have had to reduce the hours their businesses are open. They are effectively turning away customers and reducing the wages of American employees because the exchange visitors they rely on to help keep their businesses running are unable to travel to the United States.
Despite claims that international exchange programs hurt the economy, on the contrary they are significant contributors. The Au Pair, Camp Counselor, Intern and Trainee, and Summer Work Travel programs combined add over $1.4 billion to the U.S. economy in most years. 2020 has already been different, unfortunately. The economic impact from the pandemic alone on program sponsors and related industries is projected to result in losses to the economy of more than $233 million and nearly 7,000 American jobs. Recent lawsuits against the proclamation make these points as well. Suspending operations until the end of the year will significantly worsen this impact. Instead, the Administration should provide an exception for exchange programs that support and/or help to create jobs in the United States.
In addition to supporting our economy, international exchange programs strengthen our national security. Forty-four former U.S. Ambassadors recently wrote that the “Exchange Visitor Program enhances U.S. national security and prosperity by building productive partnerships, mutual understanding, and personal connections that help us address critical international issues. . ..” While it is helpful to have an exception for programs that are critical to our foreign policy, tying that exception to a “time-sensitive” need does not reflect the nature of exchange programs. The Administration should drop that requirement.
The coronavirus pandemic has devastated our economy. Millions have lost their jobs, including those that have a stake in international exchange programs. The June 22 proclamation makes this situation worse, not better. The Administration has an opportunity now for a course correction. By providing meaningful exceptions to the proclamation, they can enable once again exchange program sponsors to meet the needs of American businesses and families, while supporting our national security.
Ilir Zherka is the Executive Director of the Alliance for International Exchange