Changes announced for US J-1 Summer Work and Travel Program

The US State Department has announced significant changes to the J-1 Summer Work and Travel Program following an investigation that found widespread abuses in the program.

The J-1 Summer Work and Travel Program is a cultural-exchange program that brings more than 100,000 foreign college students to the US each year. It allows foreign college students to spend up to four months living and working in the US.

While some of the rules are effective immediately, others won't take effect until November 2012, including one of the most significant changes, which would prohibit visa-holders from working in "goods-producing" industries, such as manufacturing, construction and agriculture. The new rules also ban visa-holders from working in jobs in which the primary hours are between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.

The changes following a recent investigation that found that some participants were working and living in unsafe conditions. Last year, foreign students issued numerous complaints about work conditions to the department. The rules were changed in order to ensure that participants are treated properly and receive cultural experience while in the US.

"In recent years, the work component has too often overshadowed the core cultural component necessary for the Summer Work Travel Program to be consistent with the intent of the Fulbright-Hays Act," the State Department said. "Also, the Department learned that criminal organizations were involving participants in incidents relating to the illegal transfer of cash, the creation of fraudulent businesses, and violations of immigration law."

"The new reforms for the Summer Work Travel program focus on strengthening protections for the health, safety and welfare of the participants, and on bringing the program back to its primary purpose, which is to provide a cultural experience for international students," said Robin Lerner, a deputy assistant secretary for the State Department.

Participation in the visa program has increased from about 20,000 students in 1996 to more than 150,000 in 2008. Roughly 1 million foreign students have taken part in the past decade. The students come from around the world, with some of the top participating countries being Russia, Brazil, Ukraine, Thailand, Ireland, Bulgaria, Peru, Moldova and Poland.

In November, the State Department announced they had temporarily stopped accepting any new sponsors. Only State Department approved sponsors can issue the Certificate of Eligibility for Exchange Visitor (J-1) Status, which is the main document needed to support an application for a J-1 Visa. The State Department said that sponsors who can show their participants are being exposed to US culture outside of work will be approved to issue the Certificate of Eligibility to participants for a period of two years.

In order to be eligible for the program, applicants must be:
  • Sufficiently proficient in English to successfully interact in an English speaking environment;
  • Post-secondary school students enrolled in and actively pursuing a degree or other full-time course of study at an accredited post-secondary educational institution outside the US;
  • Have successfully completed at least one semester or equivalent of post-secondary academic study; and
J-1 Visas issued in the Summer Work/ Travel category are valid for a stay of four months with no extensions allowed.

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