I am a physician and my husband works in finance. I work early hours and he travels for work. With two sons under the age of 6 and busy schedules, we needed flexible childcare and found this in the au pair program.
After phone calls, emails, and exchanged photos of our mutual families with a South American “stranger,” we welcomed our first au pair into our home in 2009. Both parties were nervous but excited.
We’ve now had two Colombian au pairs live with us in our Washington, DC home over the past four years. These young women have enriched our lives by taking loving, thoughtful care of our two sons and bringing their culture into our home. They’ve taught our kids Spanish, and they eat dinner with us most of the time. They’re like members of our extended family.
That’s why I’m so glad the immigration reform bill now pending in the Senate would protect au pairs against human trafficking and abusive recruitment practices before they even arrive. It would require that workers receive information about the terms and conditions of a job before they leave their country and bar recruiters from charging prospective au pairs fees. It also mandates that recruitment agencies be registered as such.
These common-sense and humanitarian provisions would protect vulnerable young people (mostly women) seeking both cultural and work experience in our country. Who could object? Apparently, the au pair lobby does.
The practice of having young women care for children in their homes, while having a foreign exchange experience, began in Europe after World War II. Here, it only took off in 1986, during another bout of immigration reform.
Au pairs live with host families, improve their English, and learn about the United States. They provide up to 45 hours per week of childcare and enroll in classes. By law, employers must pay them exactly $195.75 per week — well below minimum wage — and provide room and board.
Host families also initially pay placement agencies over $7,000 in fees. We were told that this covers travel, visa processing, and a “program fee.” But one of our au pairs recently told us she paid close to $1,000 dollars for her own visa and another $1,000 dollars directly to a service just to be considered in the applicant pool.
It looks like our au pair paid $2,000 to work in our home. That’s a big bill for a young person from South America and, unfortunately, appears to be a common arrangement.
I also have concerns about the specialized visas involved. Neither our family nor our au pair was initially informed that the visa doesn’t allow au pairs to travel freely outside the United States if they spend two years here. (A second year is optional). This kept our au pairs from visiting their families for over a year.
Finally, au pairs do receive basic health and dental insurance, but it falls short of what’s required given their wages. For example, when our au pair got a bill that topped $800 for her wisdom teeth extraction, our family helped shoulder the cost.
The major au pair placement and recruitment companies seem to fear that their bottom lines would suffer under the pending legislation. Instead, they should applaud this effort to guarantee better conditions for the workers they recruit and improved services to the families who host and employ them.
The Senate bill would make it clear that recruiters can’t charge au pairs fees to come to the United States to work. Often, young women and men recruited into the au pair program can’t afford to pay these fees and, by law, they earn very little when they arrive. They shouldn’t accrue large debts just for the chance to work in the United States.
These fees should be borne by the families benefiting from their services. It’s increasingly clear that there’s a lot at stake. This change might, for example, help prevent atrocities like those exposed when Illinois pimp Alex Campbell was sentenced to life in prison for raping and abusing women who had been cut loose by the Au Pair in America agency.
As an au pair mom, I know this program is deeply flawed. I want the immigration reform law to make it more transparent and fair for everyone while doing more to prevent human trafficking. I applaud the provisions in the Senate’s version of the bill.
OtherWords commentaries are free to re-publish in print and online — all it takes is a simple attribution to OtherWords.org. To get a roundup of our work each Wednesday, sign up for our free weekly newsletter here.