For decades, the State Department’s J1 nonimmigrant visa program has provided opportunities for individuals from abroad to participate in work and study-related exchange programs in the United States. While the program has provided educational and cultural opportunities for foreign students, it has also provided a critical source of seasonal employees to businesses in the hospitality and restaurant industries in this country.
Now, an executive order by issued President Donald Trump in April — Buy American, Hire American (BAHA) — has raised concerns that J1 visas will be restricted or eliminated in the future.
“In rural areas and for seasonal businesses, we have a problem recruiting a workforce for peak dates, from mid-June until Labor Day,” said Allyson Cavaretta, director of sales and marketing at the Meadowmere Resort in Ogunquit. “The J1 program supplements that peak season, filling jobs that would go unfilled. We have a small high school population and some are too young to be able to work with (liquor) and do other jobs.”
Cavaretta said the Meadowmere employed five or six J1 applicants every year, usually working in housekeeping, food, and beverage positions. As a host employer, the business has certain obligations to the students.
“They work 35 to 40 hours a week,” Cavaretta said. “Part of their cultural experience is to work and interact with the American public, use the language and navigate cultural differences. We have to have acceptable housing available — we do, right on our property — and make sure they have cultural experiences. We have passes to the (Ogunquit) Playhouse and museums. We help them experience what it’s like to live here.”
If the J1 program was eliminated, Cavaretta said “we’d have to weigh whether we could serve lunch and dinner in our pub. That’s not a small thing. We can’t do it with high school students, they’re too young.”
Sarah Diment, general manager of the Beachmere Inn in Ogunquit, has similar concerns about losing the program. “We sponsored two this year but hired quite a few more who were looking for second jobs,” she said. “We have nine in total. Without them this season, in conjunction with the H2B program (another visa program that supplies foreign labor for approximately six months of the year), we would have been in a bad place. We would have been cancelling rooms.”
Like Cavaretta, Diment said the J1 program allowed her to weather a tough job market. “Applicants aren’t available due to our seasonality,” Diment said. “We have a tough housing market and a very low unemployment rate. People are looking for full-time jobs. It’s incredibly intensive competition in this area for year-round employees. Visas are a program of necessity and not desire. I’m thankful for the J1s and don’t know what we would have done without them.”
The Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE), headquartered in Portland, is one of 40 organizations that sponsor exchange programs that send U.S. citizens abroad for work and study as well as bring foreign students here under the J1 program. They focus on two aspects of the J1 program, Student Work Travel (SWT) and Camp Counselor (CC). In 2016, CIEE estimates that 2,550 students came to Maine in the SWT program and 1,730 in the CC program. Nationally, roughly 100,000 students arrive via SWT and 21,000 via CC each year.
The SWT program is the principal source of J1 visa employees for York County businesses. Phil Simon, the vice president for Work Exchange Programs at CIEE, said of the 2,550 SWT participants that came to Maine “a significant proportion of the total are in York County.”
Greg Dugal, director of government affairs for the Maine Innkeepers and Restaurant associations, offered a statewide perspective on the issue. “There are 77,000 employees in restaurant and lodging (in Maine) and 10 percent are Visa workers, H2B and J1,” Dugal said. “We have many more J1s because it’s less cumbersome. J1 is three months of work, one month of travel and they’re gone. In our area, there aren’t enough people, it’s not that J1s are easier. They are paid what an American worker is paid. If you take all of the J1 kids or even half away, it would have an incredible impact on our area. These programs are not anti-American worker.”
According to Simon of CIEE, the program is open only to university students overseas that come here during their summer break, primarily to work in the tourism and hospitality fields. Most work in places with a seasonal need and cannot replace an American (one of the concerns targeted in President Trumps’ Executive Order). The students work for 12 to 14 weeks and then can travel in this country for a month, prior to returning to their home country.
“This is first and foremost a cultural exchange program, not a labor program,” said Simon. “The target is educated people in other countries that can come here and see life in the United States. They go on and become influences in their own countries. There are 100,000 a year coming here. It’s had a massive impact on U.S. diplomacy over the years. We’re building a cohort of people who are friendly to the U.S.”
Meantime, CIEE and the Alliance for International Exchange are encouraging action to voice support for the program. Local chambers of commerce have communicated the need for members to contact their congressional delegation about their concerns over the program’s possible elimination.
“H2B was a big mess this summer, J1 was the only saving grace,” said Eleanor Vadenais, president of the Wells Chamber of Commerce.
“It’s the hardest I’ve ever heard that businesses are struggling to fill positions,” said Laura Dolce of the Kennebunk, Kennebunkport and Arundel Chamber of Commerce. “Now that the young people have gone back to college, people are really struggling. The unemployment rate is under 4 percent and near zero in some communities.”
For local businesses, losing the program is an existential threat. “If H2B and J1 both are not around, we’d have the staff size we had in the late 1980s to operate something that’s twice the size,” Cavaretta said. “That keeps us up at night now. We wouldn’t be alone; you’d see it all up and down Maine.”