Letter to state officials about J-1 program

Fri, 09/08/2017 - 8:45am

The following letter was sent by the Town Council to Gov. Gina Raimondo, Sens. Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse, and Rep. Jim Langevin:

It has been reported that the current Administration has given the State Department directives calling for the elimination of certain categories of the J-1 visa, including the Work and Travel Program. Block Island businesses are highly dependent on this source of labor, which brings about 240 student workers to the island each summer. It seems likely that without the J-1 program, some businesses would not be able to operate at all.

Some critics assume that these students are replacing American workers, but Block Island businesses began hiring these students over a decade ago because of the shortage of American students who were willing to work here at all, and because American students generally leave by mid-August, long before our tourist season is over. The J-1 students are paid the same wages as American citizens are paid.

While the students’ main focus is earning money to take home, the program does provide a measure of cultural exchange both in the context of English-speaking businesses and in broader interaction with the community. Block Island has been very proactive in addressing the needs and concerns of the students in recent years, with work by the Chamber of Commerce, an International Worker Coalition, and by the International Student Center, a drop-in center open nightly which serves two free dinners per week. Surveys done by the Coalition indicate that housing and working conditions have improved each year, and the overall morale of the students has improved due to services provided for them by the community. The vast majority are satisfied with their experience and appreciative of the kindness they experience at the Center. They leave with a positive impression of the United States, which is the goal of the State Department’s program.

We urge you to address this issue with the White House and the State Department to ensure that this essential lifeline for Block Island businesses is not cut off.