SWT program is used as a gateway to immigrate to the US

The following information has been taken from the recent study about the J-1 Summer Work and Travel USA program (swt). For endnotes and more information refer to the complete version of the research.

3Figure 1. An ad instructing swt participants how to stay in the US after the program 

SWT J-1 visa is a nonimmigrant visa and visa holders per regulations must return home, share American experiences and thereby fulfill the objective of the FH act. As such, using a J-1 visa as a way to come and remain in the United States beyond the program dates is not permitted. In that regard in 2005 US federal auditors specifically noted the non-immigrational intent of the program: “Bureau of Consular Affairs and other officials have stated that it is not the intent of the program” [11].

However as practice shows, swt program is often used to circumvent US immigration rules by participants, swt agents and so-called consulting “agencies” who offer “expert” opinion on US immigration[in82]. Because of the lack of program oversight and its widespread abuse, the immigration in America through the swt program became a sub industry itself. GAO stated that “overstays are a cause for concern” because “some exchange swt participants have used the programs to remain in the United States”[11]. It further cited immigration as a potential risk of the swt program[11]:

“A number of potential risks are associated with the Summer Work Travel and the Trainee programs, including the risk of participants using the programs to remain in the United States beyond their authorized time… These include the potential risk of (1) foreign nationals using the program as a means of entering the United States and remaining illegally after their visa expires”

Inspectors added that “Although exchange program participants are expected to return to their country following completion of their program, there is information indicating that some participants remain beyond the time that they were authorized to stay”[11].

As noted earlier in the section about poor swt screening, some Russian agencies knowingly used its swt agent designation to facilitate illegal immigration to the US. Although that documented violation took place back in 2009, recent data is not any better. In fact, some students continue to sign up for the program with the sole purpose to immigrate to the US from Russia permanently[in114]. Worse, US embassy-accredited agencies are perfectly aware of the immigrational intent of their participants but nonetheless recruit them and happily collect program fees. One large agent, for example, during a presentation in 2018 admitted that they knew about the immigration intent of the applicant who did not return back to Russia[in11]. However, the agent did not prevent it but instead facilitated and readily collected money from the student.

Still other students enroll in the masters level only to be able to travel to the US through the swt program and stay there permanently[in113]. In fact, one large Russian swt agency ran a public survey in which more than 10% of agency’s clients said that their sole purpose of the swt participation was staying in the US [in32]. Purpose of the cultural exchange and 2-year rule of sharing US experience back home is absent completely (option of the cultural exchange was not even available in the survey). This echoes our survey in which 12% of respondents picked the “Settle in US” option to the question “What attracts you in Summer Work and Travel USA program”[in100]. But applicants’ true incentives for participation never really concerned agents. Agents are concerned about maximizing revenues. So they offer various tips for masters-level students on how to improve their odds of receiving a visa. Beyond typical proofs of the strong attachment to Russia (binding ties that ensure return home) such as having a good job, fiancee, real estate, etc. agents go further. They recommend wanna be US immigrants first to travel to Europe even for a couple of days to get a visa stamp in the passport and “build up” visa history, and then apply for a swt visa in US embassies located outside of Russia [in12]. This all sounds more like a scam, not a recruitment for the cultural exchange program. Contrast that with what the 2017 swt lobby sponsored Eureka report stated: “through better screening and orientation, participants now understand that the primary focus of the program is cultural exchange” [151]. US Consular officers seem to be aware of all of that  – that is why the visa approval rate for master-level students is only about 10%.

Non-returns and permanent swt immigration are so common that almost every Russian participant knows someone who stayed in the US after swt[in48]. In fact, some swt immigrants openly claim that they used swt to come and stay in the US. One student for example noted: “This is just an ideal program for non-returns – improved language, earned a penny, got friends-connections – that’s it — a successful start for an illegal”[149]. Another noted that swt is for “Those who do not see prospects in Russia. Work travel is an option for further immigration abroad” [184] and for those girls “who want to marry American” [185]. For example, one Russian participant shortly after arriving at a job location, moved to a different state and married an American citizen. That looked like a prearranged marriage and certainly an improper usage of the swt program. There are articles in Russian news outlets describing how Russian participants stay in the US after the swt program[243].

Problem of non-returns is well known within the wide swt community. For example, the president of the Moscow-based New Eurasia Foundation said that “The Work and Travel program is a tool for Russian students to come to the U.S. [easily] and it is not always possible to control. It’s no secret that many Russian students became illegal migrants in the U.S.“ [59]. So it is no wonder, when Donald Trump proposed to shut down swt program, the folks in Russia immediately thought it was due to illegal immigration. Russian participant opined “Perhaps Mr. Trump wants to reduce the huge migration flow to the United States — even those who traveled with me by the program remained afterwards illegally in the States” [187].

SWT immigration ads

1Figure 2. Example of the ad inviting swt participants to remain in the US 

There tons of social media accounts that openly advertise help to immigrate to the US through the swt program. Dozens of articles and forums openly describe step by step instructions how to stay in the US after swt visa expires. Participants, lawyers and other pundits collectively provide countless “expert” recommendations and coaching on this topic. Most discussed options include: getting tourist visa, enrolling in local college/language course, getting married, staying illegal and then applying for refugee/asylum and other. The ads make transition to affluent American lifestyle and legal status look like an easy and quick process. The ads are very appealing and are deceiving especially to naive and young folks. Any American immigrant knows it is not an easy process at all. Unfortunately, there are many examples of swt immigrants still being illegals after 5 years living in the US without seeing their family and being able to travel outside of the US.

But that does not bother swt agents – they excessively brainwash young minds with glamour images of affluent American lifestyle. In uncontrolled and almost religious pursuit to maximize recruitment and profits, agents oversell the program and promised heavens in America. No warning and explanation that for illegals America will be very different from advertised Hollywood-style images. Agents do not bother to explain that immigration and tourism are very different things. That’s because any negative context towards America will hurt otherwise perfect image of the program and will ultimately hurt their sales. Counterintuitive but for agents, the more students do not return home, the better the reputation of the program becomes since not returning to Russia shows that America is so cool, and swt program gives access to that “coolness”. As a result, agents make more money. In fact, one US embassy approved agent, when advertising the program, posted “Why many decide to stay in US” and provided overly positive and false information about American life [in15]. Still another agent discussed eight legal methods to immigrate to the USA [in15].

In the report there are more links to forums and sites that discuss swt immigration options. They, among other things, offer help to find “cheap schools to change status to F1” and “sponsors for the extension of status”:

Youtube is flooded by “advices” of various so called immigration professionals who “guarantee” success. They elaborate and go to great extents how to do “it” right. These often Russian speaking “advisers” relentlessly advertise in Russian webspace to attract swt participants. Of course, they charge high fees for multi-year battles to gain legal immigration status in the US, often based on made up claims. Lawyers promise easy green cards through political asylum for instance. For that, students have to adopt fictitious religious claims, become a representative of non-traditional sexual orientation, or even member of the political opposition[in101]. Beyond becoming a refugee, “experts” offer an option of getting married to an American citizen. That service cost on average $25,000-30,000[in101]. There are many other made-up options which put immature naive students at risk.

Therefore, it is to no surprise, GAO stated that participants may use the program as a “means to fraudulent immigration”. Among other potential risks it cited “Fraudulent Immigration Claims” and elaborated[11]:

“According to DHS, the numbers of asylum applications from J-1 visa holders from former Soviet Union countries have more than doubled since 2000. These countries include Russia, Belarus, Armenia, and Ukraine. The officials are concerned that some of these claims are fraudulent, as they doubt that J-1 visa holders—who have to be students in good standing in their countries—are being persecuted. The recent increase in numbers of such claims and the similarities of the stories—which indicate coaching, are also indicators of fraud, according to DHS officials.”

Worse of all is that swt agents facilitate fraud by allowing swt immigration posts and threads on their public VK accounts[in45]. Some large swt groups feature instructional videos on their social media pages. One such group with more than 50k members maintains a detailed video “How to change status| How to remain in the US after Work and Travel”[227]. This group appears to be backed by a US embassy-approved swt agency. We have seen and documented many examples of ads posted on swt agencies’ pages offering help in US immigration. Thousands of followers in those swt agents’ VK groups instantly see swt immigration ads. Why and what agents get for doing so? It is unknown whether swt agents get a cut from swt students turning to these “helpers”. Note that posts in swt groups are moderated and usually unwelcomed postings are either deleted immediately or simply blocked from getting to the main VK wall. Unless it somehow benefits swt agents all posts are removed and authors are blocked.

For example, one large swt agency that sends thousands of Russian students keeps for them swt immigration threads[in127]. There people discuss options and how to do it “right” thereby  agents facilitate swt immigration. This is a direct violation of program rules. But who cares?

On Russian speaking US immigration forums there are many swt immigration topics with large and active audiences. Students, who have just received a J-1 visa, post engaging questions such as: “Who is going to change the visa J-1 to F-1, join”, ”How to get married with J-1 on W&T”, “What status is better to change from swt …”, etc. [149]. Should they have been selected by agents and issued visas if these students just want to immigrate to the US? Clearly, they should not.

Quick internet search of above phrases (in Russian: “Кто собирается менять визы J-1 на F-1, присоединяйтесь “, “Как выйти замуж с J-1 по W&T”, “На какой статус лучше сменить с …”)  reveals many websites discussing different options how to remain in US after swt. The report provides more links to Russian speaking platforms discussing swt immigration.

SWT immigration stats


No doubt, given so much coverage of this topic, swt immigration is a not a rare phenomenon. But how many Russians have actually immigrated to the US using the swt program? Estimates vary widely from official – agents provided – low 3% to as much as 30% from unofficial sources [64, 188]. In other former Soviet Union countries the number might be even higher. For example, per US cable, in Belarus 15% of program participants did not return home in 2007 and 2008 [190]. Another US cable in 2009 noted a 7% non-return rate in Kazakhstan in 2008 and 25-35% in 2007-2008 in Kyrgyzstan [102]. Besides, this cable noted that in Kyrgyzstan “One would expect that the population of overstays would come from economically disadvantaged areas and lesser known universities, but the vast majority of overstays are students at the most prestigious universities” [102]. And somewhat ironic (because of the so common adjustment of the J-1 status to F-1) consular officers noted that swt program “is viewed by many prospective Kyrgyz participants as a summer work and stay for study program”[102].

GAO in 2005 noted that per one study more than 20% of swt students from one former soviet republic remained in the US: 26% in 2004, 29% in 2003, 25.6% in 2002, and 27% in 2001 [11]. That is crazy – the quarter of the program participants never came back. In striking contrast, all swt participants from Western European countries returned home, as required. In 2006 CIS pointed at visa compliance problem and similarly said “Validation studies completed by U.S. consulates abroad have indicated overstay rates of more than 25% in some countries. The system created to monitor student and exchange visitor compliance (SEVIS) generates for the immigration enforcement agency an average of 500 cases per week of foreign student and exchange visitors who appear to have gone out of status”[189]. In different years the percentage of non returns varies but provided statistics do not look good. The small share of overstayed students ultimately return to their home countries but most never come back.

Given additional selection criteria and other implemented controls we would expect non-return rates to go down. But did it really improve since 2005? Well, it is difficult to assess with precision the efficacy of such measures given the program’s notorious opaqueness. There are strong indicators however that at least in peak swt years non returns in Russia remained high.

Official stats from Russian swt agencies, whom we surveyed in 2018, varies between 3% and 5% but unofficial goes up to 30%[in119]. Obviously, agents are not willing to disclose real numbers as it may negatively impact their reputation. In fact, one agent noted that the truthfulness of agents’’ answers is questionable and “this kind of stats that is coming from agents should not be completely trusted”. So the true current stats might be way higher than what is claimed by agents. In 2013 for example the director of one of the largest agency in Russia said that “About 10 percent of Russian participants overstayed their visas” [32].

Many participants say the real number is much higher. Almost every student knows or has friend’s friend who stayed in the US after participating in swt. On swt forums non-return rate goes from 10% and above with one person saying “it looks much higher” [149]. Another portal cited US authorities and the National Student Association and provided jaw-opening statistics about immigrational intents of swt participants: “Many J-1 students used their chance to travel to America as an opportunity to stay here for good. According to the National Student Association, 20 percent of J-1 visitors don’t work in the U.S., but just travel. As many as 30 percent of them come here with the intention to stay. U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement has found that every summer, at least 10,000 J-1 students don’t want to leave America” [64]. Such high numbers, among other things, indicate the poor quality of recruitment which failed to screen out unqualified participants. Agents also failed to clearly outline program objectives and rules.

In 2020 we ran a survey among about 10,000 Russian speaking people from all former soviet countries who stayed in the US after participating in the swt[in99]. The objective of the survey was to understand how many and how people remained in the US after swt for the period 2010-2020. The age range of respondents is 18-32. The survey question is “What is the easiest way to settle in the US after SWT?” Although this survey is subject to some error, it is nonetheless useful and representative. With response rate of about 10%, the survey responses are distributed as follows:

Get tourist visa – 4%

Go study to local college – 20%

Apply for work visa – 3%

Get married – 33%

Apply for asylum/refugee – 10%

Win a Green Card lottery – 7%

Why bother? Being illegal is fine – 7%

Not sure and why to stay in the US? – 6%

I have different plans – 10%

*Total may not add up to 100 due to rounding.


Agents consciously ignore immigrational intent of participants although that goes against swt regulations and the objectives of the Act.

Agents ignore and facilitate swt immigration ads on their public swt platforms.

Stayed participants do not share their American experiences at home countries. The objective of the FH act is not accomplished. It also starts a chain immigration further reducing the effect of the program. As those with whom experiences are supposed to be shared with would immigrate in the long term as well.

If we consider more than 200,000 swt participants from Russia and conservative average 10% non-return rate then we can roughly estimate that more than 20,000 Russian students immigrated to the US using J-1 non-immigrant visa. If half of these swt immigrants initiated chain migration then that number grows even much higher (>50,000). Clearly that is not the intent of FH act. And it is not rocket science to arrive at this estimate – however sponsors, given all the resources they have, are not doing enough to rectify the situation. All they want is to increase the number of swt participants.

There are potential threats to the US national security. As CIS noted “Terrorists, criminals and those seeking better economic opportunities will use any avenue available to enter the United States. Any weakness in our immigration system is ripe for exploitation” [189]. Also recall that the Boston marathon bomber was from Russia who slipped in the US under the pretext of political asylum [191].

Finally, why does America need people who immigrate in the US using fraudulent means? How good are they as members of the civil society?

Some Russian agents began requiring 4,000 rub (<$100) deposit in the attempt to reduce  overstays and non-returns. However, this is a relatively small number for someone who would remain in the US, it in no way will preclude wanna be non-returnees from changing their minds. This deposit looks more like another way to make money out of students for “violations” of program rules that agents themselves do not honor.

The best solution is obviously a proper recruitment of applicants who are willing to engage in cultural exchange. But such solution contradicts the current profit driven recruitment model which strives to maximize profits by maximizing participation. Therefore, swt immigration will continue.

We are not native English speakers so please be gracious. If you have questions please contact us by email.
Published November 9, 2020. Updated November 9, 2020.

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