Saving J-1 Cultural Exchange Programs

By William L. Gertz

President & CEO, American Institute For Foreign Study

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal (August 27, 2017) reported that the Trump Administration is considering major reductions or elimination of cultural exchange programs that allow international students and other young people to come to the U.S. for a summer or a year, to participate in a cultural program which includes a work component.

A White House Inter-Agency working group consisting of members of the Department of Homeland Security, State Department, Labor Department and Consular Affairs are meeting behind closed doors and drafting proposals.

This activity is to fulfill a major campaign promise of Donald Trump, under his “Buy American, Hire American” program. The premise is that these young people are “guest workers”, who are displacing American workers. This is a complete fallacy, as a U.S. General Accounting Office Study in 2005 said: “Labor officials stated that it is not likely that the exchange programs will have any effect on the U.S. labor market, because of the small number of J-1 exchange visitors (about 283,000 in fiscal year 2004), relative to the U.S. workforce.” The U.S. workforce in 2004 was 147 million people. In 2017 there are 300,000 J-1 exchange visitors out of a workforce of 153 million people. I urge the Trump Administration to do the math here.

But this is beside the point. Cultural exchange makes America great. It has always made our country great. It will continue to make our country great as we learn about foreign cultures and customs, and connect on a one-to-one basis with young people from around the world. Living and working with people forges a bond that is much stronger than merely visiting the country as a tourist.

Cultural exchange is the cornerstone of our public diplomacy. Alumni of international exchange programs include 565 current or former heads of foreign governments, 82 Nobel Prize winners, 58 ambassadors to the United Nations, and 26 heads of international organizations. We learn from others and we share our culture. It makes us better and stronger as a nation.

Curtailing cultural exchange programs should not be hastily lumped into any campaign promises or rhetoric. We should not allow politics to determine whether our society remains open to the world - or let the ideals we hold dear to vanish because of a simple slogan.

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