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Spirit CEO Speaks Out: J-1 Visa Program Under Review, Possible Elimination

J-1 Visa Program Under Review, Possible Elimination – via Door County Pulse

President Trump’s administration is reviewing the J-1 visa program for significant reductions, according to the Wall Street Journal. The program is being reviewed for its impact on the American workforce following the “Buy American, Hire American” executive order President Donald Trump signed in Kenosha on April 18.

The Wall Street Journal reported the State Department has been directed to rewrite regulations that would end the J-1 visa program, which includes the Summer Work Travel program used by many Door County businesses.

An estimated 440 students from abroad lived and worked in Door County this year. Local officials and visa sponsors believe the elimination of the program is misguided.

“It really is based on their misunderstanding that the J-1s are taking American jobs,” said Phil Berndt, membership director for the Door County Visitor Bureau. Berndt is also a liaison for local businesses taking part in the J-1 visa program and was able to listen into a conference call between business owners nationwide and Andrew Veprek, immigration adviser to Trump.

“Every single one of [the businesses], very clearly they demonstrated that they post the jobs and they aren’t getting any applicants for the positions,” Berndt said.

The “Buy American, Hire American” executive order signed by Trump called for a federal review of trade and immigration policies, including visa programs, to ensure they protect American companies and workers. Opponents to the visa programs believe they import a cheaper workforce, putting Americans out of jobs.

“The J-1 program exists not as a work program, it is a cultural exchange program,” said Richard Baader, CEO of the visa program sponsor company Spirit Cultural Exchange. “It’s effect on public diplomacy and national security… We change the hearts and minds of the future leaders of these other countries.”

According to Berndt, J-1 Summer Work Travel visas are regulated to ensure they are not taking these jobs away from American citizens.

J-1 visa applicants must prove they are enrolled in college and will be going back to school at the end of the season. If they wish to come back the following year, they must reapply. Other visas, such as the H-2B and H-1B, allow extensions of up to six years.

Baader said the program also ensures employers have a need for seasonal employment and have not laid off American workers in the past year.

“The whole program matches up with so many of the resorts who take advantage of the summer break,” Berndt said. “All of them fall within those key months of where you have peak need for employees.”

Brian Kelsey, managing director of Peninsula Players Theater and member of the Governor’s Council on Tourism, participated in a listening session with Congressman Mike Gallagher about tourism in general, but the J-1 conversation was one of the first topics of discussion.

“It was a group of us sharing how important the J-1 is and how it should not get wrapped into the other travel visas the administration is looking at,” said Kelsey. “[Gallagher] was very respectful and we definitely got the point across to him.”

Gallagher may be considered to join Travel and Tourism Caucus, a group of Congress members tasked with developing policies in support of tourism. He did not respond to a request for comment.

“The reality is that the Summer Work Travel program could be put out of business overnight with executive authority,” said Baader. “If you really understand the program, you would support it. Everyone would support it. We’re trying to get that communication out early so that well-intentioned people don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

On Aug. 8, a group of 17 U.S. Senators, including Tammy Baldwin and Ron Johnson, sent a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in support of the Summer Work Travel program.

“Many small businesses in our states are dependent on the program to meet their seasonal labor needs,” said the letter. “It is important to note that [Summer Work Travel] program regulations contain provisions to ensure that exchange visitors do not displace American workers.”

A report from Politico determined that for some business owners in the United States, the reduction of available H-2B visas, or those for seasonal workers who are not students, did result in more Americans being hired and an increase in wages.

Berndt expressed concern that elimination of the J-1 program could have the opposite effect.

“Without those students, we would have a tremendous loss of American jobs because of the businesses that would have to close,” said Berndt.

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BREAKING: Senate Appropriations Committee Passes Amendment Aimed at Protecting the J1 Exchange Visitor Program

From the Alliance for International Exchange

Shows Support for the J1’s Positive Impact on American Diplomatic, Business, & Tourism Efforts
Committee Also Approves $634 Million to Fund Educational and Cultural Affairs Programs

Washington, DC (September 7, 2017)— Today the Senate Appropriations Committee approved language designed to ensure that any changes made to the J1 Exchange Visitor Program be done publically, in line with the full notice and comment requirements of the normal federal regulatory process. The amendment was co-sponsored by Senator Chris Coons, Ranking Member Patrick Leahy, and Senator Lisa Murkowksi. 

The Senate committee deemed it crucial to take this step based on threats from a small working group in the White House about changes, cuts, or complete elimination of a number of the J1 programs, including the Summer Work Travel (SWT), Intern, Trainee, Camp Counselor and Au Pair programs. This language requires a transparent process—which to date has not taken place. It is also sends a strong signal from Congress on their willingness to protect this valuable international exchange program.

“At a time when the world’s favorability rating of the United States hovers below 50 percent, cutting or dramatically changing a proven program that makes up the core of our nation’s people-to-people diplomacy seems extremely misguided,” said Ilir Zherka, Executive Director of the Alliance for International Exchange. “The Senate Committee’s vote today reflects deep bi-partisan support for these programs. Any change would be a setback to U.S. national security and diplomacy efforts—not to mention deal a devastating blow to seasonal communities that depend upon increased temporary employment to prosper.”

Started by the State Department in 1961, the J1 Exchange Visitor Program has brought students from overseas to the U.S. to learn English, study, get exposure to American culture and supplement the American workforce during peak business seasons, most notably in the hospitality and tourism sectors. Established with the goal of forging positive relationships across the globe, this privately-funded program works to build lasting alliances with the world’s business, diplomatic and academic leaders of tomorrow—at no cost to the tax-payer.

It is estimated, furthermore, that J1 visa holders in the Summer Work Travel program contribute more than $500 million to the economy each year through program fees, travel, housing and entertainment. Moreover, many businesses and sponsors of the J1 programs would have to lay off thousands of American workers if significant changes are made.

The Senate’s action ensures that the international exchange community and the U.S. businesses that rely on exchange visitors will have the opportunity to weigh in to a public process. The language also ensures Congress’ role in the conversation, requiring that the State Department consult with the appropriations and authorizing committees before moving forward.

The Appropriations Committee also approved $634 million for Educational and Cultural Exchanges, an amount equal to fiscal year 2017 and $349 million above the budget requested by the administration. It is also nearly the highest level ever appropriated for exchanges.

“ECA funds and oversees a wide range of critical international exchange programs which enable people-to-people diplomacy and promote U.S. national security and foreign policy interests,” said Zherka. “We’re grateful to Chairmen Cochran and Graham, Ranking Member Leahy, and members of the Senate Appropriations Committee for standing with us and funding educational and cultural exchange programs for fiscal year 2018.”

The final amendment language as passed by the Committee today is below:

“EXCHANGE VISITOR PROGRAM.—None of the funds made available by this Act may be used to modify the Exchange Visitor Program administered by the Department of State to implement the Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act of 1961, as amended (Public Law 87-256, 22 U.S.C. 2451, et seq.), except through a formal rulemaking process pursuant to the Administrative Procedures Act and notwithstanding the exceptions to such rulemaking process in such Act: Provided, That funds made available for such purpose shall only be made available after consultation with, and subject to the regular notification procedures of, the Committees on Appropriations, regarding how any proposed modification would affect the public diplomacy goals of, and the estimated economic impact on, the United States.”

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New Study Confirms Positive Diplomatic and Economic Impact of Summer Work Travel

A just-released study from the research firm Eureka Facts shows that the J-1  Summer Work Travel (SWT) programs delivers significant benefits to the U.S. in terms of public diplomacy and economic contributions.

This extensive assessment found that SWT participants leave the program with higher regard and understanding of the United States while making lasting friendships with Americans they met. The program also helps keep local, seasonal economies strong, meeting the unique needs of small, seasonal businesses. Participants in the SWT program also contributed more than $500 million to the U.S. economy in 2016 via the money they spent in the country.