COURT HOUSE - Local businesses were urged April 19 to “keep the pressure on” the Biden administration to fast-track visa appointments and applications for international students hoping to visit the U.S., in 2021, in the Summer Work Travel program.
New Jersey is the eighth-top state to host students, receiving about 5,000 in a “typical” year. Cape May County businesses, which use the students to meet seasonal staffing demands, host 2,500-3,000 of those students.
In June 2020, President Donald Trump stopped the issuance of most of the J-1 visas, which are used by J-1 BridgeUSA programs that bring more than 300,000 international students and professionals to the U.S. to study, work, travel, intern, train and participate in cultural exchange, as a response to job losses caused by the pandemic, per media reports.
The Biden administration allowed that proclamation to expire March 31. However, U.S. embassies and consulates are providing few, if any, J-1 visa applicant interviews, bringing the future of these cultural exchange and public diplomacy programs into question.
With the Cape May County Chamber of Commerce expecting a boom in shore communities this summer due to the Covid vaccine rollout and eased restrictions, President Vicki Clark indicated the need for the U.S. Department of State to implement changes quickly, so the J-1 students arrive for a “meaningful experience” by Memorial Day, or early June, when the typical summer tourist season begins.
“There has been a little movement, but not enough since the proclamation expired March 31,” noted Tracy Doherty Taylor, counsel with Alignment Government Strategies, of Washington, D.C., during a chamber-sponsored Zoom meeting, with 42 participants, providing an update on the 2021 Summer Work Travel program.
“We need to keep the pressure on at all levels to help establish a uniform approach to get the visas issued,” she said, noting that about 100,000 students come to the U.S. from 30-40 countries with the Summer Work Travel program, but last year, only 6.7% could travel to the U.S. because of the pandemic.
Visa appointments and applications were delayed this year because of the pandemic and related staffing issues at embassies.
“At this point, we should have 70% of our students either having their visa or appointment to get their visa, but we are only in the single digits right now,” Taylor said. “We need action soon, or we will lose the public diplomacy benefits of the program and not be able to provide enough staffing for our shore businesses. There is a short window for the students to get here for an economic impact.”
Denise Beckson, who heads human relations at Morey’s Piers and Beachfront Water Parks, in Wildwood, said her company usually hires 500 J-1 students for seasonal positions, but currently, only 15 have visas or a visa appointment.
“We have more jobs than we can fill,” Beckson pointed out. “We typically have 1,500 positions available and each season about 200 go unfilled. Most students are here 10-12 weeks, on average, although some stay 16 weeks.
“The students learn about the U.S., they add diversity to the workplace, they work, live, and travel in the U.S., and they are popular in our community,” she added. “People enjoy helping our international students discover America and meet Americans.”
She said studies have shown that 76% of participants “have a higher impression of America when they leave.”
“They don’t take jobs away from Americans,” Clark said. “They fill positions that go unfilled because there are not enough people for all the seasonal jobs our businesses require. It is not a cheap labor program, but a benefit to America, as it is a diplomacy tool. There is no cost to us, as taxpayers, for this program. These students travel and spend money here in our economy, too.”
It’s estimated they add about $26.9 million to the state’s economy, according to Beckson.
Clark said “after 2020, our area businesses don’t want to be in a position to decrease their offerings because of a lack of staffing” if the J-1 students can’t travel to the U.S.
“The population in the county is older, and many are not in the job market, so it is hard to hire locally,” she added. “If businesses want to provide good customer service, they need to be staffed properly.”
Businesses across the county and otherwise were asked to sign a BridgeUSA Coalition letter to Biden, urging the U.S. Department of State to add the J-1 cultural exchange applicants to the department’s national interest priorities and to waive personal appearances for returning participants applying in the same category.
Clark did not know how many businesses in the county signed the letter.
Preston Gibson, chief executive officer of the Seawave Corporation, which publishes the Cape May County Herald, said he signed the letter for the Herald, noting, “We have no direct business operations interest in the program, but we do support this program as an important factor in providing adequate staffing to promote economic vitality for Cape May County.”
As part of the chamber’s update, Beckson reviewed travel restrictions, pre-flight Covid testing requirements, Covid vaccinations, and quarantine options.
Clark talked about housing requirements in peril because of declining inventory, rental price increases, and an “expected robust tourist season.”
Also, she said many second homeowners moved permanently to their shore community because they can work and attend school remotely.
“Businesses are expected to help find housing for their students,” she added, noting host families are permitted if families have a room they want to rent.
She also offered some suggestions for businesses that may not be able to meet their staffing requirements.
“If staffing numbers aren’t achieved, it will be another summer like last season,” Clark said. “Businesses will be seriously understaffed. We are pursuing seasonal grants to provide higher wages and the state is advertising jobs at the shore. We may also have to implement a ‘be patient and kind campaign’ with smaller staffs.”
“We need to keep the pressure on,” Taylor added. “The more the administration hears from us, the better.”
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