Ocean City Today

Trump policy could cost resort 4,000 workers

Administration considering axing J-1 program vital to Ocean City tourist economy
By Katie Tabeling | Sep 07, 2017
Photo by: Lisa Capitelli

The resort business community continues to rally to protect the J-1 Visa Summer Work Exchange Program as the Trump Administration has listed it as another potential target in its effort to restrict immigration and temporary workers from other countries.

“I’m still shocked by this,” Ocean City Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Melanie Pursel said. “We are working on compiling a summary report and testimony of businesses that heavily rely on the J-1 visa program, and we plan to present it to our elected representatives and Gov. Larry Hogan. If this happens, it would paralyze Ocean City.”

In April, President Donald Trump signed the “Buy American, Hire American” executive order to preserve American jobs while cracking down on foreign worker programs. The order was designed to target the H-1B visa program, but last month it was reported that senior White House aides were working to include the J-1 visa program.

There are close to 12,000 seasonal openings in Ocean City in a year, according to the Chamber of Commerce. Roughly 4,000 J-1 visa students work those jobs every summer.

Both Sen. Ben Cardin (D) and Chris Van Hollen (D) have heard Ocean City’s concerns and stand behind the J-1 visa program. The pair, along with 12 other senators, urged Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to continue the program in a letter on Aug. 8.

“While the J-1 program could be thoughtfully updated as part of comprehensive immigration reform, it helps small businesses meet their seasonal employment needs,” Van Hollen said this week. “[It] provides for cultural exchange and public diplomacy with students across the world and should not be arbitrarily targeted.”

Cardin had stronger words for the president’s “short-sighted” immigration policies.

“[They’re] based more on campaign rhetoric than what would be most helpful for our communities and national security. His effort to chip away at the J-1 visa program is no different,” he said. “We cannot sacrifice both opportunities for hardworking students and benefits to our local community to satisfy partisan efforts to shut our borders to the world.”

Rep. Andy Harris (R-1st) said that he would support tighter restrictions on the J-1 visa program so Americans would have priority for jobs. In May, he signed a letter to Secretaries of Homeland Security and Labor that advocated the re-opening the H-2B visa, another seasonal work program, after the 66,000-visa cap was met.

“We need to have requirements similar to the H-2B, and if employers can’t hire American, then it’s time to hire a visa holder,” Harris said. “There are temporary jobs out there that Americans can fill, like in the seafood industry and crab picking.”

The H-2B visa program requires employers to solicit former U.S. workers hired the previous year or those laid off within 120 calendar days before the date of need. Newspaper ads, and other advertisements as approved, must be made in a certain time period before a H-2B visa holder can be hired.

“The J-1 visa program has been around a while,” Harris said. “We need to make an effort to find and hire employees here.”

Pursel said that the current J-1 visa program already has a system of checks and balances. Students must have housing before they arrive, and sponsors must prove that the job provides a cultural experience.

“The J-1 visas are not taking American jobs, because people do hire American students. But in August, the college students have to go back and the high school kids start sports,” she said. “We hire every qualified worker we can. Unfortunately, the need is concentrated in the summer when we have a quarter of million visitors to serve.

“I’ve had businesses tell me they would have to close down a portion of their business if they can’t hire J-1s,” Pursel added. “Others said they think they’ll close in two seasons because they can’t survive – and when that happens, that means less jobs period.”

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