Provisions aimed at preventing trafficking of low-wage workers — tucked into the sweeping immigration reform bill — threaten to wipe out the system that brings in foreign college students to work at the Wisconsin Dells, resort operators and student sponsors say.
An anti-human trafficking provision in the immigration bill would prevent foreign labor contractors from charging fees to the workers they bring in, and another provision would institute a new $500 fee per worker to help pay for stepped-up security on the Mexican border, says Michael McCarry, executive director of the Alliance for International Educational and Cultural Exchange in Washington, D.C.
That would mean sponsoring organizations — both businesses and non-profit organizations — would no longer be able to charge students fees for recruitment, visa application assistance and other services that McCarry estimated average $1,500 per young person, and would have an additional $500 fee to cover as well. The sponsors, which net less than $500 per student now, would not be able to absorb the costs, he said.
“If the bill passes as it exists now, it will destroy the Summer Work Travel Program,” McCarry told me in an interview Friday.
The Summer Work Travel Program, which brings in students under the J-1 visa, is a cultural exchange program administered by the U.S. Department of State. It already provides lots of protections for the 2,000 or so college students who come to Wisconsin each year to work three or four months in the tourist industry, Stacie Tollaksen of Intrax, a sponsorship company with an office in Wisconsin Dells, said last week at an immigration legislation listening session in Madison with aides of U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis.
“It’s a great diplomacy program,” said Tollaksen, who is chairperson of the Wisconsin Dells/Lake Delton International Student Committee. That coalition of employers, convention bureaus, taxi companies, police, housing inspectors and citizens was formed a year and a half ago to ensure the safety of the foreign student workers and “make sure they enjoy their time in Wisconsin Dells,” Tollaksen said. The coalition also provides cultural and community programs, she said.
As a bipartisan group of senators, known as the “Gang of Eight,” mapped out the immigration bill this spring, the Work Travel Program came under fire when foreign students recruited to work at a Harrisburg, Penn., McDonald’s went on strike over working and housing conditions. Students working at a Pennsylvania chocolate packing factory had walked out in 2011, complaining that they were just being used as cheap labor and were not paid enough to recover the fees they incurred in getting to the United States.
Tollaksen says the State Department has tightened up regulation of the Work Travel Program over the past couple of years. “They got rid of sponsors who were not doing it properly, and make sure students are not being used as just labor — they can’t work in factories any more — and that there are cultural and community programs for them,” she said.
And while businesses and public officials in the Dells area say they are organized now to protect the foreign students, a shortage of housing for the workers led to the use of at least two old motels closed down by building inspectors over the past several years.
And treatment of foreign students in exchange programs is just part of a growing concern over the possible trafficking of “guest workers” of all types who are vulnerable to exploitation when they enter the country to work temporarily under contract to meet seasonal and other peak worker demands. The current reform proposal creates a new “W visa” to expand the pool of these workers.
Employers in the “Waterpark Capital of the World,” rely on the Work Travel Program to bring in workers to fill the jobs required to serve the thousands of tourists and day-trippers who visit the Dells area each summer, said Shaun Tofson, director of human resources for the Wilderness Territory, a Wisconsin Dells waterpark and golf resort.
“It’s appalling to put the program under human trafficking — that’s so far from the truth,” Tofson said at the listening session. “If we didn’t bring in students, we’d have to close parts of our company.” And she doesn't have the expertise with the complex immigration system to help foreign students secure visas, as the sponsoring groups do, she said.
Although her company uses foreign students year-round, demand for them soars in the summer when they fill seasonal jobs like lifeguard, water slide attendant and housekeeper, Tofson told me in a follow-up interview. “We don’t have enough workers in Wisconsin Dells-Lake Delton. There are workers in Madison, but they’re not going to drive an hour for a job that pays $8.50, $9 an hour. It’ll get eaten up in gas,” she said.
Tofson said the students who work for her company intend to return home and are looking for an enriching experience. “It gives them a better chance of getting more prestigious jobs, and to practice English — it definitely looks good on a resume.”
Jim Franz, now employee relations manger at Great Wolf Resorts in Wisconsin Dells, told Johnson’s aides at the public session last week that he has worked with the Work Travel Program for more than 30 years. “There’s a lot more to it than a ‘worker program.’ People I have worked with have benefited greatly. They come thinking the whole country is New York and California and everyone is a millionaire — they leave with a whole new perspective and that is a benefit to everyone.”
Johnson’s staff said they would pass along concerns about the provisions affecting the Work Travel Program. A phone call on Friday asking for comment on inclusion of the program in the immigration bill's anti-trafficking provisions to the office of U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., one of the Gang of Eight who crafted the bill, was not returned.