OCEAN CITY — The outlook for the J-1 visa programs remains in limbo as an action last week by President Biden stopped short of easing travel bans for seasonal foreign student-workers critical to the resort’s workforce.
With the calendar flipping to March this week and the summer season suddenly approaching quickly, the clock is ticking on the J-1 summer work and travel program that supplies a significant number of employees to Ocean City’s seasonal workforce. In a typical summer, an estimated 4,000 foreign student workers arrive in Ocean City to fill out the resort’s seasonal workforce.
With roughly 12,000 seasonal jobs in Ocean City each summer, the J-1 students represent about one third of the entire workforce and help keep many of the resort’s seasonal businesses up and running. However, last summer with COVID travel restrictions in place, the J-1 seasonal workers were not allowed to come, greatly crippling the workforce in Ocean City already struggling other COVID restrictions.
Last week, local, state and regional hospitality organizations were relieved when Biden revoked one of former President Trump’s proclamations issued last year restricting travel for some non-U.S. residents. However, Biden did not revoke Trump’s proclamation covering the international student-worker seasonal visas.
Trump’s Proclamation 10014, entitled “suspension of entry of immigrants who present a risk to the U.S. labor market during the economic recovery following the 2019 novel coronavirus outbreak,” was lifted by Biden last week. In simplest terms, 10014 banned certain permanent immigration visas, or essentially, “green cards.”
However, Biden did not revoke Presidential Proclamation 10052, which “suspends the entry of aliens who present a risk to the U.S. labor market following the coronavirus outbreak.” Proclamation 10052 was an extension of Proclamation 10014 signed by Trump last June. Biden last week revoked 10014, but did not technically revoke its extension, Proclamation 10052. It’s technical and somewhat confusing, but 10052 remains on the books.
The language in the two proclamations is similar, but the differences are significant. Proclamation 10052 covers the U.S. Department of State’s BridgeUSA Exchange Program, also known as the J-1 exchange visitor program.
Proclamation 10052 is set to expire on its own on March 31 and it is uncertain if the Biden administration will extend it. Advocacy groups for the J-1 exchange visitor program are urging the president to revoke Proclamation 10052 now, or at the very least let it expire at the end of this month as scheduled. Even if the proclamation is allowed to expire, there are questions on whether the foreign embassies and the State Department can process applications fast enough to help Ocean City’s labor market this summer.
As a result, hospitality and exchange program advocates, including the Greater Ocean City Chamber of Commerce and the Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association (OCHMRA) locally, have embarked on a letter-writing campaign to the president urging him to revoke Proclamation 10052, or at the very least, let it expire on March 31. While the March 31 expiration date is still not ideal, it would set the clock in motion the process to bring a significant number of foreign student-workers to Ocean City.
There are significant issues to resolve for that to happen, making the revocation of Proclamation 10052 extremely timely. The student-workers have to obtain their J-1 visas and work with sponsor organizations to secure employment and obtain housing. The latter is getting tricky in Ocean City. Many of those who rent seasonal housing to the foreign student-workers are, or soon will be, forced to make decisions on whether to rent their properties long-term or other alternatives.
To that end, the Alliance for International Exchange this week sent out an action alert urging advocacy groups to join their letter-writing campaign to Biden and the State Department to revoke Proclamation 10052 immediately, thereby easing the restrictions on the summer work and travel programs. The organization provided a stock letter which representatives of advocacy groups can sign. It also provided an opportunity for organizations and associations such as the chamber and the OCHMRA, for example, to localize their responses to the president.
“I am writing to urge you and your administration to ease travel restrictions for exchange participants to help prevent the current crisis from worsening dramatically in 2021,” the stock letter reads. “The international exchange community has been significantly impacted by the pandemic.”
The Alliance for International Exchange’s stock letter to the president asserts easing the travel ban for seasonal workers can be accomplished safely while protecting all involved as COVID wears on.
“I support efforts to protect the health and safety of everyone involved in making exchange programs possible, including consular affairs officers,” the stock letter reads. “I believe that the U.S. Department of State can achieve those goals while also easing the travel restrictions for exchange programs.”
Ocean City HMRA Executive Director Susan Jones took the opportunity to localize the issue in her letter to the president. Jones pointed to the severe labor shortage in Ocean City last year that curtailed hours of operation for many businesses in the height of the summer season and even forced some to close.
“In our resort community of Ocean City, we typically have 12,000 seasonal positions to fill,” the HMRA letter reads. “By sheer numbers, our population does not offer us the opportunity to fill these positions, and now with Americans enjoying their unemployment checks, we are in a crisis to fill seasonal jobs.”
A statement from the Intrax Cultural Exchange and Educational Program, a sponsor organization that facilitates the J-1 program locally, also points out Biden’s actions last week stopped short of easing the travel restrictions for summer seasonal workers in Ocean City. The organization praised the president’s action last week, but pointed out the revocation did not include the J-1 visas so important to the resort.
“While this is great news, it’s important to point out that this currently affects only immigrant visas,” the statement reads. “Non-immigrant visas, such as H2-B and J-1 work and travel visas are not included in this. The visa ban on non-immigrant visas is still set to expire March 31, but we are hopeful that the advocacy efforts of the sponsor community will result in the ban being lifted, or at least being not extended.”
The Intrax statement also pointed out the growing concerns for adequate housing for the seasonal workers, but holds out hope for the 2021 season.
“Housing is definitely going to an issue for our participants this year and we will have to limit the number of participants that we can place in Ocean City unless the host companies are able to assist in providing or locating housing,” the statement reads. “It’s going to be a struggle, but we are still hoping for summer 2021 to be a great year for all.”