DAVID GREENE, HOST:
OK. A summer job at a camp or an amusement park is a rite of passage for many young Americans. These jobs also appeal to young foreigners who come here on J-1 cultural exchange visas. Well, critics are now taking aim at these kinds of visas, saying that far too many young Americans are out of work these days - and so Congress is taking a closer look.
From member station WSHU, Kaomi Goetz reports.
KAOMI GOETZ, BYLINE: About a dozen teenagers gather under a pavilion one rainy afternoon at The Cow Lick ice cream shop in Hancock, New York. The village is in a rural area upstate bordering the Catskill Mountains.
Kelly Newman is an outgoing 18-year-old. This summer, she'll be working as a local swimming instructor, making minimum wage at 7.25 an hour. In this area, about one in five teenagers lives below the poverty line. She considers herself lucky to have a job; she knows there aren't a lot of options for high-paying work.
KELLY NEWMAN: ...McDonalds. If you want to make more than minimum wage, you might as well just, kind of, forget it.
GOETZ: But there are jobs. Down the road is French Woods. It's a performing arts summer camp that attracts young people from around the world. About half of its 400 employees come from another country.
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JOE DAVIS: I'm from the U.K., like a lot of the counselors here.
GOETZ: That's 19-year-old Joe Davis. It's his second summer at French Woods. He's handsome, polite and works as a lifeguard.
DAVIS: I wanted to travel when I left education. I wasn't too sure what I wanted to do. And at the time I didn't have much money to go out and just work my way around the world, so I looked into the Camp America program.
GOETZ: Davis is one of more than 170,000 foreigners who are in the U.S. at any given time on a J-1 visa. The visa category was created decades ago to promote cultural exchange.
Overseas applicants go through an American company that sponsors, screens and places them in jobs. Most work as camp counselors, au pairs or at an amusement park. Participants must return home afterwards.
Beth Schaefer is part-owner of the French Woods camp. She says the foreign workers not taking jobs away from Americans.
BETH SCHAEFER: We hire a lot of American staff. But for us, we're able to have people come in who are really engaged in a different sort of way.
GOETZ: The idea here is that foreigners bring a different cultural perspective. And unlike U.S. teens, they are motivated less by money and more by adventure - which can be a nice spirit to add to a camp.
Last summer, Davis made only about $1,000 for three months' work. Still, he enjoyed the experience and shared his British perspective with American kids.
But a provision in the Immigration Bill now being considered by Congress could change things.
Bill Gertz is CEO of the American Institute of Foreign Study - the organization that sponsored Davis. Gertz says the proposed legislation could kill these J-1 exchange programs.
BILL GERTZ: If these students do not come into this country, they'll be a, you know, this is the soft diplomacy that the U.S. really needs.
GOETZ: Still, critics say the J-1 program is not well regulated and can hurt U.S. job seekers.
Back in Hancock, 17-year-old 3Joe Hanstine, of nearby Lakewood, Pennsylvania, says the J-1 visa program should be in tune with the local economy.
JOE HANSTINE: I see the point of the program, but maybe since our unemployment rate is so high and people are always wanting jobs, they should sort of cut back on the foreigners for a while.
GOETZ: But for himself, Hanstine doesn't need minimum-wage work at a camp or amusement park. He's got a leg up - his dad's excavation business is paying him $10 an hour this summer.
For NPR News, I'm Kaomi Goetz.