State Department expands oversight of J-1 sponsors

17 Feb 14

UNITED STATES

The State Department is expanding its oversight of exchange visitor (J-1) program sponsors to include site visits in the intern and trainee category this month. It is already conducting site visits to sponsors in the work travel category as of last year. The expanded field visits coincide with a report last week by the Southern Poverty Law Center that criticized the exchange visitor program as a “low-wage guest worker program,” recounting stories from visitors in the Summer Work Travel and Trainee and Intern categories, who signed up expecting a cultural experience, but found themselves working menial or exploitative jobs. In 2010, an Associated Press investigation found similar abuses. Since then, the State Department has beefed up resources and staff to oversee the program and conduct on-site visits. In some cases, sponsors will be notified before an appointment, but the State Department will also make unannounced visits in cases where officials believe that giving notice would prejudice what they might find.

“We want to ensure we are going to be seeing things as they actually are – not a Potemkin village,” said Susan Pittman, director of media relations for the Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. “We want to make sure the sponsors are doing what they’re supposed to be doing.” She added that sponsors may be randomly chosen for a site visit, or could be targeted for a visit based on complaints from participants. During a site visit, inspectors will interview everyone involved with the program, including the sponsor, host, employer, housing provider and students and visitors in the program.

“We talk to anybody and everybody,” Pittman said. Sponsors can expect to produce documentation and answer questions about their recruitment methods and complaints they have received. Sponsors are required to submit reports about the program and to relay any complaints from participants to the State Department. Although the State Department does not have direct authority over employers, it will interview employers to find out about a visitor’s workplace and job duties. Under regulations, the State Department can impose sanctions against sponsors ranging from a reprimand to revoking sponsorship designation. The Exchange Visitor Program website lists sponsors that have been sanctioned, the reason for the sanctions and types of any penalties imposed. Last year, the State Department conducted over 1,300 site visits around the country, according to Pittman.

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