2017-09-14 / News

Future in Question for Locally Used J-1 Visa Worker Program

By Stephanie Fortino

Chambers of commerce in the Straits of Mackinac area are urging members to tell Congress and the White House they value the federal J-1 Visa Exchange Visitor Program, used by many local business owners to fill summer jobs but possibly targeted for changes by President Donald Trump.

The fate of the program, intended to provide opportunities for international visitors to come to the United States to work and travel for a short period of time, has been called into question because of the “Buy American and Hire American” executive order Mr. Trump signed April 18.

Nothing official from the Trump administration has been released yet, but many worry the cultural exchange program will be greatly reduced or eliminated. Unlike the widely-used H2B Visa program, it’s not intended to fill seasonal labor shortages, but many international workers participating in the J-1 program live and work in the Straits of Mackinac area each summer.

The J-1 Program, which provides opportunities for foreigners to come to the United States to work and experience American culture, each year brings 300,000 visitors to the U.S. from about 200 countries. According to the mostrecent data available on the US Department of State website, 8,181 J-1 visitors worked in Michigan in 2016 — 113 in St. Ignace, 265 on Mackinac Island, and 213 in Mackinaw City.

Compared to the process for hiring

H2B workers, the J-1 process is easier and less costly for businesses to use. Business owners work with sponsorship organizations to hire J-1 workers for the summer. Sponsors have to be sanctioned by the State Department and oversee the process of getting the J-1 visitors to the U.S. Hiring H2B Visa holders is more complicated because business owners must hire attorneys and illustrate to the federal government that the workers are needed to fill a local, seasonal labor shortage.

The J-1 Visa program has a dozen categories under which visiting students and workers can come to America. Most of the J-1 Visa holders working in the Straits of Mackinac area are part of the Summer Work Travel program that brings college-age students to work for about three months and travel for one month.

Many J-1 workers in this area also belong to the intern and trainee programs, which allow students enrolled in hospitality or culinary programs to visit America for six months, working and filling assignments while in the U.S.

Other programs for the J-1 Visa include Au Pairs, which brings people who want to provide child care to the U.S. for a year; camp counselors; visiting scholars; and visiting secondary, college, or medical students. There is a J-1 Visa program for international educators to teach for up to three years in American schools.

Representatives from many local businesses are actively lobbying for both the J-1 and H2B visa programs in Washington D.C. and elsewhere throughout the country.

Grand Hotel General Manager Jennifer King is attending a conference on J-1 Visas this week in Colorado, where she will participate in a discussion of the program on a panel that will include a U.S. State Department representative. While there, she hopes to learn more about the fate of the program.

“The most important thing is that it’s a cultural exchange program,” she said. “We have students from 26 countries, all living and working together. It’s a good thing for our guests and our employees to get to experience.”

Local chambers of commerce are encouraging business owners to contact Senators Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow, Representative Jack Bergman, the White House, the Department of State, or Congress to show support for the program.

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