Broad Campaign Underway To Retain J-1 Program

OCEAN CITY — The possible elimination of the J-1 Work and Travel program has spurred a grassroots effort to stave off the proposal pitched as part of the Trump administration’s Buy American, Hire American executive order.

In April, Trump signed an executive order that would reduce the number of foreign workers in some sectors of the U.S. economy in the interest of protecting and preserving jobs for Americans. Left untouched in the initial executive order was the J-1 visa summer work and travel program that supplies the backbone of the seasonal workforce in Ocean City and similar resort areas all over the country.

However, according to a Wall Street Journal article published last week, some senior White House staffers are conspiring to include the J-1 program in the president’s broader Buy American, Hire American (BAHA) executive order and are proposing to drastically reduce the program or eliminate it altogether. The proposal immediately mobilized the resort’s business community and the sponsors of the international J-1 students to encourage the administration to leave the J-1 program untouched because of its obvious economic and cultural benefits.

Locally, the Greater Ocean City Chamber of Commerce and the Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association (OCHMRA) reached out to their collective members to speak out on the issue and emphasize the importance of the program from a seasonal workforce standpoint and a cultural standpoint. The OCHMRA asked members to write letters expressing their concerns with the possible elimination of the J-1 program and members have already started to respond.

One early letter penned by Dough Roller owner Bill Gibbs and shared with The Dispatch this week succinctly sums up the issue from the resort business community’s perspective. Gibbs’ family owns and operates four full-service, family-friendly restaurants, one 37-room hotel and an ice cream shop in Ocean City and the businesses rely heavily on the foreign seasonal workers in the resort on J-1 summer work and travel visas.

“The latest proposal of severely reducing or possibly eliminating the J-1 work and travel program would have a profound impact on businesses and citizens of Ocean City and the surrounding communities,” the letter reads. “I strongly encourage you to continue your fervid support of this program.”

Gibbs’ letter explains the J-1 foreign summer workers used to supplement the American high school and college seasonal workers.

“As a seasonal resort town, Ocean City can only operate in the summer with the help of outside employees,” the letter reads. “Thousands of seasonal workers come into Ocean City for the summer months. The bulk of our seasonal help consisted of college and high school students for many years.”

Gibbs further explained in the letter a not-so-subtle shift in the summer employee workforce base that has led to the greater dependence on the J-1 visa foreign student workers in the last decade-plus.

“However, in the last 10 to 15 years, there has been a drastic decline in young adults applying for jobs,” he wrote. “Many have limited hours due to school sports and other extracurricular activities and some simply aren’t interested in working during their summer break. There isn’t enough year-round work to bring locals into town. We are forced to fill more and more positions with J-1 work and travel students each year.”

Beyond the obvious economic benefits of the J-1 summer work and travel program for the resort’s business community is an enhanced cultural experience for both the foreign seasonal workers and their American counterparts.

“The J-1 work and travel program fosters cultural acceptance and promotes diversity,” the letter reads. “Not only are J-1 students exposed to U.S. culture, but our American employees are also able to learn about many other cultures. Our J-1 and American employees create new friendships and with social media they are able to easily stay in contact and share their experiences and lives with one another. We’ve seen couples meet through the J-1 program and get married. This program enables everyone to see each other as human beings, not just a faceless nation on the other side of the world. It eliminates stigmas and bias.”

OCHMRA Executive Director Susan Jones said this week she sat in on a conference call with the White House organized by the Alliance for International Exchange, which represents many of the sponsor organizations for the J-1 summer work and travel students. Jones said the call included three White House staffers and roughly 200 businesses from seaside resort towns, ski resorts out west and even the National Park Service, which also relies on the seasonal workers. Jones said the White House staffers asked the participating businesses and organizations how they used the program and what its value was to their operations. The participants were successful in articulating its importance, according to Jones.

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.