2017-09-21 / Front Page

Local Businesses Oppose Potential Cuts to J-1 Visas

By Christopher Allen

As summer winds down, college students across the country are back in the classroom. This leaves many businesses, specifically those in destination holiday hubs like Newport, to rely on foreign exchange students to do the heavy lifting. But that could change if a popular visa program is eliminated.

In April, President Trump signed the “Buy American and Hire American” executive order, which includes a review of temporary visas, or “J-1s.” Then, in late August, the Wall Street Journal reported that the White House is eyeing cuts for five of the 15 categories of J-1, including the summer worker travel category.

A number of Newport businesses that rely in part on temporary workers to fill out their peak-season staffs have expressed concern about a possible cut in J-1 visas.

Sue O’Donnell, director of human resources for Hotel Viking, echoed the sentiment of many leaders in local hospitality that J-1s are a key component to a successful season. “If eliminated, it would be a huge economic blow to the Newport area,” she said, “forcing businesses to dramatically reduce their hours of operation due to a lack of employees, and subsequent shutdown of portions of their business, ours included.”

O’Donnell says the hotel relies heavily on augmenting their staff with SWT (Summer Work Travel Program) students. “This year, they [made] up approximately 8.9 percent of our staff during peak season,” she said.

The SWT exchange program allows foreign college students the opportunity to live and work in the U.S. for a predetermined amount of time, so long as they secure sponsorship from a public or private organization. These sponsors must “monitor the progress and welfare of the participants,” according to the U.S. State Department website.

Angel Georgiev, a 21-year-old Bulgarian student, navigated the visa process over a period of months beginning last January, and in June began working special events at the Newport Preservation Society, the organization that maintains many of Newport’s historic landmarks.

Georgiev says any proposal to end the J-1 program destroys a mutually beneficial arrangement that strengthens the international image of the City by the Sea. It also makes traveling to the U.S. more complicated. “Without the J-1 visa we would have to get a green card which is very difficult, or some kind of travel visa,” he said.

Proponents of the temporary visa program agree with Georgiev, and point out that it’s not only an exchange of labor and finance, but of culture and ideas as well.

“These students …provide a well-received element of diversity to our entire staff,” O’Donnell said. “[They] come here to learn about U.S. culture, strengthen their English skills, and make personal connections to Americans.”

The Newport Tent Company depends heavily on foreign exchange employees, according to its spokeswoman Jenn Pinheiro, who said the company this season sponsored 18 students from Romania and Bulgaria.

“The program allows us to employ J-1 students who are able to work for Newport Tent longer into the fall than our local students can,” Pinheiro said. “Our [American] students go back to college at the end of August, early September, during which time we are still very busy.”

Some Rhode Island elected officials have spoken out in support of a strong and diverse labor market in the Ocean State. In an email to Newport This Week, U.S. Rep. David Cicilline expressed the importance of the J-1 visa program to the state’s travel and tourism industry.

“I’ve heard from a number of constituents about how critical this is to their businesses,” Cicilline said, “and I’ll continue to do everything I can [to] protect the program.”

O’Donnell says the economic benefits should not be ignored and pointed to subsequent ancillary advantages linked to these students who live, shop and entertain themselves locally. “Historically speaking, these programs have always had bipartisan support,” she said. “With an estimated $500 million dollars being contributed into the economy by the SWT alone, elimination of this, and other visitor exchange programs, would cause unnecessary harm to our economy.”

Critics argue that visa labor programs have a negative effect on the job prospects of unemployed Americans, and advocates for the J-1 program are preparing for the worst. In May, G.K. Saba, acting deputy secretary for the State Department’s Private Sector Exchange Division, wrote an email to sponsors citing “emerging administration policies and themes” in reference to upcoming scrutiny of foreign exchange programs, as reported by The Washington Post.

Prior to the 2016 election, President

Trump singled out the J-1 as an unfair jobs program for “foreign youth” and vowed to eliminate it.

But O’Donnell said she believes this criticism is misplaced. “I would be interested to see the data that has been collected on this,” she said.“Theislandisata4percent unemployment rate and we have had open positions for the last four months that we have been advertising with the minimum local traffic coming in to apply.”

A veteran observer of Newport’s business climate, O’Donnell says that reductions in the influx of labor may have consequences that reverberate out. “If eliminated, it would be a huge economic blow to the Newport area,” she said, “forcing businesses to dramatically reduce their hours of operation due to a lack of employees, and subsequent shutdown of portions of their business, ours included.”

As for Georgiev, he is cautiously optimistic that this summer in America will not be his last. He plans on traveling for a week once his work for the Preservation Society is complete in late September, and then returning to Bulgaria to work toward a degree in mechanical engineering.

But he hopes to relive an experience that a limited group of foreign students ever has, and apply for another J-1 visa next year. Georgiev says that coming to the U.S. is a “once in a lifetime opportunity.” Maybe for him, it can happen again.

Return to top