By Joe Guzzardi
August 31, 2016
Recently, a young Ecuadoran woman fell to her death from the Grand Canyon rim in Yellowstone National Park. In an official statement, a park representative said that 21-year-old Estefania Liset Mosquera Alcivar was socializing with co-workers at 3:15 AM when she slipped. Alcivar’s body was found four hours later, and the incident is under investigation, in part because of the early morning hours that the accident occurred.
In 2012, another foreign national working at Yellowstone, 18-year-old Russian Maria Sergeyevna Rumyantseva, suffered a similar deadly fate when she, on her first day of employment, also lost her footing on a rock promontory, and plunged 400 feet.
The loss of young lives is sad, but a reasonable question must be asked when looking at the two cases: Why, in this prolonged period of teen unemployment and the scarcity of good summer jobs for American youths, are foreign nationals working in, of all places, Yellowstone National Park, a national treasure? Congress established Yellowstone in 1872, and President Ulysses Grant signed the law that made it the first national park. Yellowstone is as all-American as it comes.
According to the Pew Research Center, the share of teens working summer jobs has dwindled since the early 1990s. In the 2015 summer, less than a third of teens had a job. And the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that for the lucky 5.6 million teens who had summer jobs, nearly a third worked in “accommodation and food services” – restaurants, hotels and fast food.
For decades, Congress and some U.S. employers have told the public that they depend on international workers because the jobs they must fill are ones that Americans won’t do. But to suggest that kids will work in fast food but not at a national park defies common sense. Teens and young college graduates would covet the opportunity to work in one of the magnificent national parks, but are increasingly denied the opportunity. Yellowstone’s website encourages international applicants especially those who hold a J-1 or F-1 visa. The J, also called the Summer Work Program visa, is issued to promote “a cultural understanding of life in the U.S.” while the F is offered to full-time international students that major in hospitality, hotel management or accounting at a U.S. university. Yellowstone uses three sponsoring agencies that collect hefty fees for their services. Last year, aggregate agency fee income exceeded $100 million.
Research from the liberal-leaning Economic Policy Institute confirmed that employers have several significant financial incentives to employ J and F visa holders rather than U.S. workers. The visas have no prevailing salary requirement which enables employers to pay wages that are lower than those earned by U.S. workers in the same occupation.
Furthermore, employers are exempt from paying visa holders’ Social Security, Medicare, federal and state unemployment taxes. Visa holders are required to pay for their own health insurance coverage during their stay in the U.S. so employers can hire them without paying their health care costs, another significant cost savings. Since employers aren’t required to advertise their open positions or recruit unemployed U.S. workers, even in areas suffering from high unemployment, they can and do hire visa holders with impunity.
With all the political rhetoric about the importance of American youths and their futures, the State Department should shut down the visa worker programs that help displace citizen kids. But, in spite of years of mounting evidence that the visas are systematically abused, demands for meaningful, enforceable reforms have fallen on deaf ears.
A Senior Writing Fellow, Joe can be reached at [email protected] and found on Twitter @joeguzzardi19