From cultural sojourner to guestworker? The historical transformation and contemporary significance of the J-1 visa Summer Work Travel Program

Catherine Bowman, Jennifer Bair

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

3 Scopus citations


Since the mid-1990s, the J-1 Summer Work Travel (SWT) program has quadrupled in size. While many J-1 visa holders are in the U.S. to study or conduct research, the primary activity of SWT participants is low-wage labor. We analyze the trajectory of the SWT program since its origins in the Fulbright-Hays Act, underscoring both change and continuity in the practical and discursive handling of what are, in effect, guestworkers. Our analysis reveals both longstanding concerns about the SWT program’s risks to foreign and domestic workers, as well as repeated efforts by U.S. government officials and private sector stakeholders to justify its status as cultural exchange rather than temporary work. Yet despite these concerns, over the last two decades, the SWT program has become larger and less regulated. We explore these changes in the context of two contending forces shaping the labor market: on the demand side, a transformation in the organization of work towards ‘fissured’ workplaces and contingent employment, and, on the supply side, limited access to foreign labor due to political gridlock over comprehensive immigration reform. We conclude that the SWT program both reflects broader trends in managed migration and embodies the model of flexible migrant labor many employers now demand.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1-25
Number of pages25
JournalLabor History
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2017


All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • History
  • Organizational Behavior and Human Resource Management

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