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

September 8, 2017

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.