White House Interagency Group Seeking to Eliminate J1 Visitor Exchange Visa Program

Impact on American Business, Tourism and Diplomacy Devastating; New Study Shows Program Strengthens U.S. Economy

Washington, DC (August 27, 2017) – At a time when the world’s favorability rating of the United States hovers below 50 percent, a small working group based in the White House is seeking to eliminate the majority of privately-funded J1 Exchange Visitor Programs. As reported today in the Wall Street Journal, American businesses fear the economic blow they will experience as a result of this effort. 

Started by the State Department in 1961, the J1 Visa Program—which includes Summer Work Travel, Camp Counselor, Intern/Trainee and Au Pair programs—has brought many  students and others from overseas to the U.S. to learn English, study, and get exposure to American culture. Some supplement the American workforce during peak business seasons, most notably in the hospitality and tourism sectors. Established with the goal of forging positive relationships across the globe, these privately-funded programs work to build lasting alliances with the world’s business, diplomatic, and academic leaders of tomorrow.

Eliminating the J1 programs is ostensibly part of a broader effort to “protect the interests of U.S. workers” under the Buy American, Hire American (BAHA) Executive Order, which was issued by President Trump in April. There are reports that the White House interagency group focused on shutting them down is being led by Senior Advisor, Stephen Miller.

The notion that the J1 programs undermine the President’s BAHA Executive Order, however, is misguided and uniformed. In many cases, these exchange programs work to effectively supplement and expand the American labor force during peak seasons. With this additional temporary support, companies, camps and other organizations can increase their services and ability to grow their businesses—and, ultimately, their permanent workforce. With low-record unemployment, the ability to find enough workers to fill seasonal positions has been greatly impeded. Camps will face a reduction in the number of American campers they can serve due to a lack of access to counselors. Any action to end these J1 programs severely undermines the ability for American entities to expand into new international markets.

To date, there has not been a transparent and open discussion on the issue. Many in Congress strongly disagree with this approach and voiced their concern in letters to Secretary of State Tillerson. Members of Congress from both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives urged Secretary Tillerson to oppose such an action. American communities, businesses, and families greatly benefit from these programs, they cost the American taxpayer nothing, and the image of America worldwide continues to erode.

"It is unclear why, at a time of economic and diplomatic uncertainty, a small group of advisors in the White House are conspiring to eliminate programs that have long-term benefits to both our position in the world and our economy at home,” said Ilir Zherka, Executive Director of the Alliance for International Exchange. “These programs have strong bipartisan support. Any change would be a setback to U.S. national security and diplomacy efforts—not to mention deal a devastating blow to seasonal communities that depend upon increased temporary employment to prosper.”

If eliminated, the U.S. economy will take a substantial hit. It is estimated that J1 visa holders in the Summer Work Travel program contribute more than $500 million to the economy each year through program fees, travel, housing, and entertainment. Moreover, many businesses and sponsors of the J1 programs would have to lay off thousands of American workers if these changes are adopted by the administration.

A report being released on Monday by research firm EurekaFacts underscores two important benefits of the Summer Work Travel (SWT) program in particular: an ability for local businesses to overcome seasonal labor shortages and a high level of interest and satisfaction in the program. In fact, one quarter of surveyed employers indicated that without the presence of SWT students who complement their American workforce, they would not be able to operate at capacity during their peak season. It also revealed a 97 percent satisfaction rate among participants, with 76 percent gaining a higher overall regard for the U.S. after participating in the program. 

More than 600 businesses from a vast range of industries have joined Americans for Cultural Exchange—a coalition in support of international exchange programs—representing localities across the country.  They voice concerns ranging from the need to dramatically reduce hours of operation due to a lack of employees, the subsequent need to then shut down portions of their businesses, and the very real threat of having to lay-off year-round American employees due to lost revenue. 

Also, over decades many American families have provided cultural exchange experiences to their children by hosting au pairs in their homes. Preserving the Summer Work Travel (SWT), Intern/Trainee, Camp Counselor, and Au Pair programs will benefit of American businesses, families, and the country’s image worldwide. Eliminating them would harm our diplomatic efforts and our economy.

“We urge the Trump administration to reject this dangerous approach to our foreign policy,” added Zherka. “We also call on exchange supporters in Congress to add their strong voices to the fight to save these critical public diplomacy tools from people who would put our nation’s national security at risk and harm many communities.”

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The Alliance for International Exchange is an association dedicated to promoting the growth and impact of exchange programs. Since 1993, it serves as the collective public policy voice for now over 90 nongovernmental organizations comprising the international educational and cultural exchange community in the United States. The Alliance increases awareness of the impact of people-to-people diplomacy.