Alaska's Begich Ties Immigration Vote to Access to Cheap Labor for Canneries

By Jerry Kammer, February 22, 2013

Last year the State Department announced its intention to prohibit foreign students who come to the United States with the Summer Work Travel program to be employed in the Alaska seafood-processing industry.

But the powerful industry quickly brought in some heavy political guns, especially Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), who prevailed upon State to postpone the ban for the 2012 season.

Sen. Mark Begich (D-AK)

Now National Journal is reporting that Begich may tie his vote on "comprehensive immigration reform" legislation to more concessions from State and the Obama administration. Begich wants Alaskan canneries to have access to the large supply of cheap foreign labor that enters the United States with J-1 visas provided by the Summer Work Travel (SWT) program.

As National Journal reported, Begich "sees opportunities to turn at least one of the looming national issues to his benefit."

The article includes this quote from Begich: "With regards to immigration, it's good to see a bipartisan effort moving forward, but we have a specific issue around our fishing industry, J-1 visas, to make sure it gets attention in immigration legislation."

Begich's comments illustrate a new, unanticipated side-effect of the Summer Work Travel program. First, SWT induced employer habituation to foreign workers. Then habituation gradually progressed to addiction and the claim that employers couldn't survive without them. Now Summer Work Travel has produced vote trading on an issue of national significance.

Begich's position infuriates Monte Hawver, who works with residents of Alaska's Kodiak Island who have been displaced by J-1 workers. Hawver said in an email that he called Begich's office to protest.

Said Hawver, "I asked a lot of difficult questions as to why a Democratic senator was taking the leading role in promoting the interests of foreign-owned processors over local working poor." Many of the canneries that tap J-1 workers are owned by foreign corporations.

In 2011, we at CIS published a special report about the Summer Work Travel program. It was titled "Cheap Labor as Cultural Exchange".

That report cited a video, then available on YouTube, that included a seafood processor's recruiting pitch in Ukraine.

"We're looking for hard workers who are not afraid to work every single day, up to 16 hours a day", said recruiter Sarah Russell of Leader Creek in the village of Naknek. "You will make a lot of money in a very short period of time and you won't spend it anywhere because there's really nothing to do in Nakenak other than work."

When the State Department announced its plan to deny seafood processors access to the Summer Work Travel program, it pointed out that the Summer Work Travel program is intended to be a cultural exchange with a work component. It also acknowledged that the "work component has too often overshadowed the core cultural component."

That acknowledgment followed strong statements by the State Department's Rick Ruth that we included in our report. Ruth acknowledged that many young foreigners are delighted to have the chance to work long hours to earn wages that far exceed what they could earn at home. Then he said:

But just as the Summer Work Travel program was not created to provide cheap employment for American employers, it was also not created to be a get-rich program for foreign students.

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Ruth added this: "I would argue that contact with Americans, interaction with American society, is the essence of any cultural, educational program. So a situation where there's a concentration of Summer Work Travel participants where they are not interacting with Americans during the day doesn't look to me that it might fit the bill as suitable employment for a J-1 program."

The J-1 program has become yet another means by which the government of the United States serves the desire of American employers to hire foreign workers. The employers who have access to these workers claim that they cannot find Americans willing to do these jobs at the wages and under the conditions that the young foreigners accept.

Summer Work Travel boosts the attractiveness of foreign workers by exempting them from Social Security, Medicare, and federal unemployment taxes. That adds up to an 8 percent price advantage over the cost of hiring American workers.

The Summer Work Travel program has long been called a program of cheap labor posing as cultural exchange. Now we can also call it part of Capitol Hill horse-trading to pass "comprehensive immigration reform".