Hold companies responsible for visa abuse

by Heather Rushall

Arvind Balaraman

America isn’t just beautiful, it’s a land many hope to live in; some even die trying to get here. Almost since our nation’s founding, the U.S. has relied on a system of foreign labor in exchange for benefits and temporary residence on American soil. However, thanks to loose regulations and corporate bigwigs cheating the system for a tax break, the Foreign Students in Work Visa Program, J-1, will be no longer be a way for foreigners to experience all this country has to offer.

College students around the world usually jump at the opportunity to spend their summers in the U.S. working and studying abroad. The year-round program offers work to students in resorts and tourist attractions. However, according to The Associated Press, the program is being scrutinized for widespread abuse and a moratorium has been put into place by the U.S. Department of State.

Reports of misconduct include exploitation of foreign students. Complaints vary from participants working in strip clubs to being paid as little as $1 an hour. In response to public pressure following the exposure of abuse, the department has limited future participation rates to the “2011 actual participant levels,” and will remain that way until stronger rules are created and enforced. Stricter regulations on the program were created last summer, but complaints have remained numerous. J-1 participation jumped from 20,000 students in 1996 to more than 150,000 in 2008 and will remain at that amount or fewer until the freeze is complete.

Corporations — or “sponsors” — save 8 percent when hiring foreign student workers because they are not required to pay social security, Medicare or unemployment; but often the student sponsors make fraudulent job offers or cancel the job upon arrival of the participant. Other complaints include absurd work hours, unfair wages and issues with housing and transportation. Workers have had to live in homeless shelters or other tight spaces with as many as a dozen people at ridiculous expense.

The most recently publicized guest worker scandal was the unfit work conditions visa students were subjected to by the Hershey Company. Hundreds of workers protested outside the distribution center they worked at in August. The workers, who walked off the job in protest, said they were being paid the required $8.35, but rent and living expenses, taken directly from their paychecks, left them with less money than it had cost them to get their visas in the first place. Night shifts were commonly required of the workers, and labor became increasingly difficult as time went on. Soon, employees were expected to work faster and complete more than what was feasible. Added to the controversy were the multiple sex trafficking investigations underway at nearly the same time the protests began, with strip clubs in trouble for openly seeking J-1 workers in their job listings.

It’s no secret there’s a trend in topics the media chooses to focus on. But aside from gay marriage, immigration, a less-than-fabulous government and a number of other more “sensational” topics, the depressing conditions hopeful foreign students are experiencing have been swept under the rug for years. Millions of exchange students have come to America on work visas during the past decade. It’s embarrassing to think of the reputation these corrupt corporations are creating for our country, both here and abroad. Smart and talented college students are being used for tax breaks, undocumented labor or sex trafficking. It’s shameful our country is being represented in such a disgusting manner to foreigners who want to be here to experience all the freedoms and leisures of living in America.

We are a proud country. But as a supposed land of freedom and opportunity, it’s time we end this tax holiday for corporations, and start protecting the dreams of foreign laborers. If America is truly the place to be, we should strive to prove it.

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