J-1 student program in jeopardy

Fri, 09/01/2017 - 10:00am

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal stating that “major reductions in cultural exchange programs” — the very same programs that bring hundreds of workers to Block Island every summer — are being considered by the Trump administration has caused the administrators of those programs to urge business leaders here to call their U.S. Senators to oppose the cuts.

A letter from Dynamic Global Exchange, one of the agencies that has worked to bring cultural exchange students to Block Island, sent here to local businesses stated: 

“We are reaching out to share an update on the J-1 Summer Work Travel, Intern, and Training programs. As you may recall, we have expressed cautious optimism in the past about the future of these programs under the current administration. However, we have recently been made aware that the administration is considering plans to eliminate these programs — perhaps within the week. (The Wall Street Journal reported on this: http://bit.ly/2wiFssb.) We are very concerned about the future of these programs. We know that these programs play a vital role in your business and the larger economy in your community. Accordingly, we need your help today. We can not afford to delay action.” The letter urged business owners here to call members of Congress to urge them to oppose the reductions.”

The letter was signed by Dynamic Global Exchange Executive Director Deb Martin and Managing Director Marisa Martin.

The proposed reduction is being proposed under President Trump’s “Buy American and Hire American” executive order, which was issued in April and described by the Journal as a “review of U.S. immigration rules to ensure that the interests of domestic workers are protected. No decisions have been made, but supporters of the program worry changes will be made without a full public debate.”

“I can’t believe they are thinking about reducing the program,” said Mary Beth McManus, co-owner of the Ice Cream Place. “These relationships have been great over all these years.” Many of her cultural exchange students have returned multiple years in a row, and McManus added that she does not hire foreign workers instead of American workers.

“This has worked out so well,” she said. “We learn from each other.”

McManus said that all her American workers went back to school in early August and the only employees left are the foreign exchange students. “If they did away with the J-1 student visa program, we’d have a hard time staying open. That really becomes an issue for us. This would be devastating to business.”

“What the heck would happen if the pipeline is shut off? I can’t imagine.” said Harbor Church Pastor Steve Hollaway. “This can’t happen. I’m very concerned. There’s no way anyone could survive this way.” One of the Harbor Church’s ministries is the International Student Center, which provides meals and social activities for the seasonal workers.

“It’s kind of unbelievable. It appears the people who are writing [the order] are idealogues that feel there are some kind of political points to be made about America first,” said Holloway. 

“That’s why we reached out to the folks on Block Island, to discuss what impact this will have on Block Island and coastal communities,” said Deb Martin. “Block Island is the perfect place to really support the program.”

“We have been in touch with everybody,” said Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Kathy Szabo. “We need this to help everyone keep their doors open. We will do what we can do to make this not happen.”