“The US State Department, which has long sent American artists abroad as part of its cultural diplomacy efforts, is for the first time launching a sizable program to bring foreign performers here — an initiative administered by the New England Foundation for the Arts. Comedians, puppeteers, musicians, and dancers from Pakistan, Haiti, and Indonesia will tour to small and midsize cities across America next year as part of the nearly $2 million Center Stage program. ’Since the early ’50s, we’ve basically sent groups overseas to do people-to-people exchange for mutual understanding,’ said Ann Stock, assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs. ‘This is the first time we’re bringing 10 groups to Main Street America.’ ”
It sounded like a nice experience for foreign visitors and audiences alike.
But not all summer visitors who come in under the auspices of the State Department get what they expect. J-1 visas, for example, are given out for young people to work here and enjoy cultural interactions. But according to Monica Lopossay in Thursday’s New York Times, things cans go wrong, especially if job placements are contracted out to contractors who also contract them out.
In Palmyra, near Hersey (PA), “Hundreds of foreign students, waving their fists and shouting defiantly in many languages, walked off their jobs on Wednesday at a plant here that packs Hershey’s chocolates, saying a summer program that was supposed to be a cultural exchange had instead turned them into underpaid labor.
“The students, from countries including China, Nigeria, Romania and Ukraine, came to the United States through a long-established State Department summer visa program that allows them to work for two months and then travel. The students said they were expecting to practice their English, make money and learn what life is like in the United States.
“In a way, they did. About 400 foreign students were put to work lifting heavy boxes and packing Reese’s candies, Kit-Kats and Almond Joys on a fast-moving production line, many of them on a night shift. After paycheck deductions for fees associated with the program and for their rent, students said at a rally in front of the huge packing plant that many of them were not earning nearly enough to recover what they had spent in their home countries to obtain their visas.” Read more here.
In Rhode Island, our family often meets up with young adults on J-1 visas. They staff the grocery store and the restaurants in summer. For us, it is a nice cultural exchange to talk to people from Ukraine, Moldova, or Serbia, but it’s hard to know if the visitors are having a valuable experience. Often their housing is not great, but the location is beautiful and many make good friends.
If you know more about this, do weigh in.