Thousands of parents were put on edge a month ago when they began receiving e-mails from au pair agencies imploring them to oppose a provision of the immigration reform bill that the agencies said would “create more regulatory complexity” for host families and “endanger the future of this important cultural exchange program.”
Now, weeks of behind-the-scenes wrangling among au pair agencies, workers rights advocates and employers have yielded a compromise that the agencies say will keep them in business but that worker advocates say does not go far enough to protect exchange students from exploitation.
At the center of the dispute is the J-1 visa program, created more than 50 years ago to facilitate educational and cultural exchange. The State Department oversees the program, which it views as a tool of diplomacy. But worker advocates say the State Department is not equipped to police what has become the nation’s largest guest-worker program. About 350,000 people enter the country under J-1 visas each year, and about 20,000 of those are au pairs, said Susan Pittman, a State Department spokeswoman. The largest group are summer workers hired by places such as amusement parks, resorts and pools.
Recent cases of exploitation of summer workers have fueled calls for greater protections and oversight.
The immigration reform bill sought to do that by eliminating fees that unscrupulous recruiters charge foreign students for the chance to work in the United States. Fees can range from a few hundred to several thousand dollars.
The fees are market driven, said Mike McCarry, executive director of the Alliance for International Educational and Cultural Exchange, which represents au pair agencies. The agencies rely on them to cover recruitment, visa processing, travel and other costs, and probably would have to cover any decrease by increasing fees for host families. An increase would hurt business with the agencies’ cost-conscious clientele, who view au pairs less as cultural ambassadors and more as affordable live-in child care.
The compromise, which is part of an amendment that cleared a major procedural vote Monday, would still allow the fees. But the State Department will regulate them, deciding what is reasonable, said Daniel Costa of the Economic Policy Institute.
The fees can make au pairs more reluctant to report or leave difficult working conditions because they need to recoup what they paid or to repay loans they took out to cover the fee, said Janie Chuang, the author of a forthcoming Harvard Law School journal piece on au pairs.
Chuang, an American University law professor, was involved in the case of a former Northwest Washington au pair who said nothing to her agency or the State Department after she found herself working 60 to 75 hours a week for a fee that added up to less than minimum wage, because she wanted to recoup the $3,000 she had paid to a recruiter in Colombia. The former au pair, who asked not to be identified out of fear of retaliation, said she finally broke down during a play date at another family’s home and told the parents there about her situation. She was taken in by another family and recently settled a civil lawsuit against her former employers, two local attorneys, who agreed to pay her $12,000 in back pay.
It remains to be seen whether capping recruitment fees will result in higher costs for host families. But the compromise is an improvement, McCarry said.