J-1 Visa program protected by Congress

Preserving island’s foreign summer workforce
Fri, 07/20/2018

Sponsors and employers involved with the foreign student exchange program on Block Island are breathing a sigh of relief.

That’s because the U.S. Congress acted to protect the State Department’s Summer Work Travel program, a program that was in jeopardy of being scrapped by the Trump administration.

Trump’s State Department had an interest in eliminating the program shortly after he was elected in Nov. of 2016, with its potential demise going into effect this summer. One reason for the SWT program’s solvency this summer is that on March 23, Congress passed an omnibus appropriations bill for the government’s 2018 spending that includes protections for the SWT program. Those protections are built into the bill’s language, and were approved through a bipartisan process.

“The purpose of the directive is to ensure that no changes are made to SWT or other exchange programs without” Congressional approval, said Mark Overmann, Vice President of External Affairs of InterExchange, a non-profit organization that participates in the exchange program. “Congress has to be consulted on any proposed change to SWT. If Congress felt that a proposed change would harm the programs, it can take action to protect them.” 

Overmann told The Times that, “The appropriations directive is a statement from Congress of its strong support of Exchange Visitor Programs. The directive doesn’t free us from threats to the programs, but it gives Congress specific authority to step in and block negative changes.”

Even with the actions and support of Congress, Overmann said InterExchange is still being vigilant in protecting the program. “The threat continues to be serious and real,” he said. “There haven’t been changes to the programs, but the pressure on all things international is still very much there. We’ve gotten Congress and our host employers very active. Seventeen Senators and 33 Representatives signed support letters. Five governors wrote support letters. Host employers sent more than 100,000 messages to Congress.”

As part of a cultural exchange initiative, the SWT program supports foreign students working as seasonal employees in the United States. Each summer on Block Island over 200 foreign students participate in the State Department’s J-1 Visa Exchange Visitor Program, filling positions in the island’s hospitality industry, at restaurants and hotels.  

Pastor Steve Hollaway, who oversees the International Student Center at Block Island’s Harbor Church, said, “I’m glad that Congress responded to the outcry from employers, sponsors, and business groups. There are many seasonal resort communities around the country who are highly dependent on J-1 Visa students to meet their staffing needs. Block Island typically receives about 220 J-1 students each summer, and without them the local hotels and restaurants would be in trouble; there simply aren’t enough American college students able to work those dates and hours and live in such modest conditions. In addition, these student workers enrich our lives each summer with their positive spirit and cultural sharing.”

Bill Penn, President of the Block Island Residents Association, who assists with the SWT program on the island, said he was “delighted that Congress has protected the program and has stood up to the Trump administration. I was very concerned about Trump eliminating the program. His administration has no empathy for issues affecting humans, especially foreigners. This will ensure that the students enrolled in the SWT program will continue to be viable contributors to the Block Island community and businesses.”

“The work experience gives them interaction with American employers, work ethics and customers,” added Penn. “The Student Center gives them exposure to the Block Island community volunteers and a place to congregate outside the bars.”

Penn noted that the Rhode Island Alliance for International Analysis for 2016 reported that “there were 749 SWT students in the state, 30 percent of them were on Block Island. Their economic impact to the state was $4 million, $1.2 million for Block Island.”

Kathy Szabo, Executive Director of the Block Island Chamber of Commerce, said, “Block Island businesses really count on the J-1 Visa students to round out their summer staffing. Foreign students are able to stay longer into the fall than American students, many of whom have to return to college in mid-to-late August; right in the middle of our busy season. Students who play sports often have to leave the island in early August. By staffing with a combination of local students and foreign students, businesses are best able to serve their customers for the entirety of the season.”

“The busiest part of our tourist season coincides with the public school schedules, late June to the first week in September, and the busy shoulder season extends into September with weddings, the road race and other activities,” noted Szabo. “Foreign students generally have a schedule that matches the needs of our season.”

Szabo said, “The Chamber of Commerce hosts representatives of the Social Security Administration during two dates in June. During those dates this spring, they processed Social Security cards for over 200 foreign summer workers. An SSA representative said that Block Island is one of three locations they travel to in Rhode Island, the other two being the YMCA’s Camp Fuller and Camp Hoffman, which is run by the Girl Scouts of Rhode Island. Each of these locations hire enough J-1 Visa students to warrant the staff making the trip.”

Overmann said the SWT program is a “win-win” for the U.S. “The Summer Work Travel program supports American diplomacy and security, and American businesses and local economies. It’s a win-win for our country. The program helps local seasonal businesses operate at full capacity during peak times. It helps them serve more customers and employ more Americans.”

“American seasonal businesses would suffer without Summer Work Travel,” added Overmann. “Fifty percent of host employers surveyed in a recent study said that the absence of SWT would have a major negative impact on their revenues. Twenty-five percent said they wouldn’t be able to stay open. Ninety-two percent of host employers said that SWT students help their businesses by contributing to a positive culture in the workplace.”

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