Date of Award

Spring 1-1-2019

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

First Advisor

Jennifer L. Bair

Second Advisor

Christina A. Sue

Third Advisor

Jill L. Harrison

Fourth Advisor

Ming H. Chen

Fifth Advisor

Fernando Riosmena

Abstract

Since the mid-1990s, the J-1 Summer Work Travel (SWT) program, a once obscure U.S. cultural exchange visa category, has quadrupled in size. While many J-1 visa holders are in the United States to study or conduct research, the primary activity of SWT participants is low-wage labor. In recent years, the program has come under attack for alleged labor abuses and unchecked growth. My dissertation bridges scholarly discourse on immigration, labor studies, and citizenship to closely examine the SWT program’s ascendency and attendant controversy. I ask: why has the program grown so precipitously in two decades? And, what—if anything—is the relationship between the proliferation of the SWT program and broader trends in immigration policy? I employ a mix-methods approach of archival research, ethnography, and quantitative analysis of demographic and labor market information for more than 94,000 SWT participants.

My archival research exposes persistent concerns about whether SWT participants’ labor market participation violated the SWT program’s cultural intent and harmed workers, concerns that remain unresolved today. It likewise reveals how the SWT program articulates workplace fissuring, i.e. the changing organization of work toward more contingent, arms-length employer-employee relations. I empirically document SWT participants’ predominant placement in industries where fissuring is prevalent. Moreover, I argue that the SWT program further entrenches fissuring by placing cultural sponsors between workers and their employers, an arrangement that eliminates employers’ typical obligations to temporary foreign workers and discourages participants from exercising basic rights. Because of these conditions, SWT participants embody a privileged yet vulnerable status: while their socio-economic position as middle-class students affords them benefits of working and traveling abroad, they simultaneously face a variety of hardships due to their insecure immigration status and lack of civil protections. Ultimately, I argue that outmoded workplace laws and the manipulation of quasi-official immigration categories act in concert to deprive workers of their basic rights. Based on my findings, I call for more expansive theories of global citizenship that take into account the subjectivities of a sizable group of temporary foreign workers rendered largely invisible at a time when immigration reform represents a hot-button issue.

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