Stephen Steinlight writes: Spending a part of every summer vacation in South Wellfleet at the far end of Cape Cod was a rite of childhood, one I revived when my daughters were little and then again, many years later, about a decade ago. The Cape is blessedly much the same, though there’s more than a touch of the Malling of America on Route 6, the main drag, and Provincetown is more evenly divided nowadays between gays and straight people. But with regard to the essentials time has pretty much stood still, a result of much of the land being included in the Cape Cod National Seashore, a national park where the rules are strictly enforced that preserve the pristine beauty of the ocean beaches and the salt marshes and the land around them. The most exciting recent development has been the arrival from Maine of large colonies of seals that gather at low tide at the Head of the Meadow Beach and the beach off Chatham. Swimming in the icy water at Head of the Meadow, I often find myself exchanging glances with passing seals sporting regulation Lord Kitchener whiskers.
One change is very stark, however, and it’s disconcerting. Perhaps because I work on immigration I may spot it a bit sooner than other vacationers, but no one with a history of summers on the Cape can ignore it for long. One of the time-honored traditions of the Cape, a rite of summer itself and a pleasure for all concerned for as long as I can remember, were the hordes of local kids and college students, most from nearby Boston, that came to work at the lobster shacks, the more upscale eateries, the souvenir stores, and gift shops in Chatham and Provincetown. They worked hard, enjoyed the Cape in their limited free time, and had an excellent rapport with customers who, especially if they had kids their age, had an avuncular regard for them.
The local kids and the college students are almost entirely history now. Their absence is palpable; they are missed; and they haunt the Cape like ghosts. In their place – having usurped their place – is a legion of courteous if comparatively stiff young foreigners from Dublin to Dubrovnik. This past August I encountered a sprinkling of Brits, but most came from East/Central Europe, the Adriatic, and the Balkans.
Some 100,000 come here annually on what are termed J-1 visas, under the Summer Work Travel Program, administered not by the immigration authorities but by the U.S Information Agency, part of the State Department. The stated rationale is to bring foreign young people to America to work and interact with ordinary Americans, foster a positive impression of the United States, and send them home as ambassadors of good will. At the conclusion of their officially authorized period of employment they may remain for a “grace period” of 30 days, presumably to provide the opportunity to travel in America. To monitor their whereabouts and ascertain they’re in conformity with the program’s guidelines, they must report such information as a change of address or of legal name within ten days. Data regarding the J-1’s is maintained in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS), a database utilized by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Failure on the part of the J-1’s to report these changes within the time allowed may result in the revocation of the visa and deportation. J-1 visa program alums must remain in their countries of origins for two years before they are eligible to apply for a visa to return to the United States.
The J-1 program has been denominated an “exchange program,” but it’s no such thing. Participants head in one direction only: to the U.S. No young Americans are given the commensurate opportunity to work and travel abroad. This phony descriptor inevitably triggers additional skepticism, and, indeed, this isn’t the only aspect of the program that feels fraudulent, where there is a hiatus between lofty rhetoric and grimier reality.