NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Congressional Role In Au Pair Tragedy

November 24, 1997

While the whole world knows about the death of eight-month-old Matthew Eappen at the hands of British au pair Louise Woodward, almost nothing has been said about the role of the U.S. Congress, say observers. Au pairs from Europe get visas to come to the U.S. under a 1986 federal program under the control of the United States Information Agency.

  • Congress put the USIA in charge because the law said it was a cultural exchange program -- similar to programs for which USIA annually issues visas to 300,000 foreign visitors.
  • Some 11,000 au pairs between the ages of 18 and 26 arrive in the U.S. each year for a 12 month live-in experience with an American family; 60,000 have come to the U.S. since the program began.
  • The only cultural requirement is six credit hours of study at an American college.

Critics say that since the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) does not routinely grant visas to foreigners to work as nannies in America, the au pair program has become a de facto employment program. But European teenagers are lured here expecting a cultural experience, not real work:

  • The U.S. program allows up to 45 hours work a week, while many European countries don't allow au pairs to work more than 25 hours a week, or five hours a day.
  • Many European countries do not allow au pairs to care for children under the age of 2 unless they are at least 21 years old; there is no such restriction in the U.S. program.
  • Nannies in the U.S. typically earn about $21,000 a year, whereas the pay for an au pair is set by law at less than $140 per week, and the annual cost for the host family is typically $12,000.

Congress reauthorized the program, despite requests from the USIA that it be cut or at least transferred to Labor or INS. Proposals to modify the program -- raising au pairs' pay, for instance -- resulted in 3,000 angry letters from host families. In 1995 Congress expanded the program to recruit non-European au pairs, and in October 1997 President Clinton signed a bill making the program permanent.

Source: Warren Cohen (U.S. News & World Report), "Home Wreckers," New Republic, November 24, 1997.


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