US State Department to review claims of US J-1 Summer Work Travel visa abuse

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US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has ordered a complete review of the J-1 Summer Work Travel visa program that has been used by US businesses to hire international students for short-term, seasonal positions. Foreign students this year have issued numerous complaints about work conditions to the department.

A US State Department spokesman, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Clinton "has called for an extensive and thorough review of the program. We continue to be committed to working to strengthen the Summer Work Travel Program to safeguard the health and welfare of the participants."

Under the J-1 Summer Work Travel visa program, foreign students are granted US visas for up to four months and often land jobs at hotels, resorts and restaurants. There are other categories for J-1 visas including for au pairs, interns, and camp counselors. Only the Summer Work Travel category is affected by the review.

The US House Judiciary Committee's immigration subcommittee also has been gathering information on the visa program, which was created in 1963 to allow college students from other countries to spend their summer breaks living, working and traveling in the U.S.

In November, the US State Department announced no new organizations will be permitted to sponsor students who come on J-1 Summer Work Travel visas. Also, no more than 103,000 J-1 visas, the number issued this year, will be issued to international students in 2012. The US State Department also revised its rules to require more supervision of its 53 designated sponsors, which help students arrange for visas and find jobs and housing in return for a fee.

Nearly a year ago, The Associated Press reported numerous abuses, including cases in which J-1 Summer Work Travel visa holders were put up in crowded apartments and forced to work long hours at labour-intensive jobs for $1 an hour or less.

"We have already instituted one set of reforms and are working toward additional ones that take additional measures to protect participants and prioritize the original cultural intent of the program," the State Department spokesman said.

The reforms being considered by the State Department would limit and refine the types of jobs students can have and expand the list of prohibited employment categories. Most of the abuses in the J-1 Summer Work Travel Program over the years have been blamed on unregulated, third-party labor brokers who work with the students.

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.

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