Economic impact of the J-1 visa exchange visitor program reduction following presidential proclamations and lack of prioritization for nonimmigrant visas in Montana. Information is from a survey conducted by the Alliance for International Exchange. PHOTO COURTESY OF ALLIANCE FOR INTERNATIONAL EXCHANGE

Nonimmigrant visa decline

Busy summer anticipated, smaller SWT workforce possible

Two companies that help facilitate Summer Work Travel (SWT) programs, the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE) and InterExchange, reached out to Chambers of Commerce throughout the country, concerned about a presidential proclamation that extended the limitation of the number of J-1 visa applicants able to come to the United States, and the lack of prioritization for nonimmigrant visas at different U.S. consular services.

SWT students are required to have a J-1 visa, which is a temporary, nonimmigrant visa. These individuals are university students in their home countries and participate in the program during their summer breaks, four months maximum.

On Dec. 31, 2020, former President Trump signed a presidential proclamation (PP) that suspended entry of immigrants and nonimmigrants ‘who continue to present a risk to the United States labor market.’ This proclamation extended PP 10014 and 10052 through March 31, 2021.

President Biden rescinded PP 10014—which suspended certain immigrant visas—on Feb. 24, 2021, but PP 10052 remains in effect until the end of the month. This suspends entry of nonimmigrant visa applicants who ‘present a risk to the U.S. labor market during the economic recovery following the novel coronavirus outbreak,’ which includes J-1 visas.

“It’s putting a lot of questions around the program this summer,” Anna Johnson, director of business development for the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce, said.

The process of hiring SWT applicants may begin as early as October. The process is lengthy, and visa interviews occur through the spring and summer. Information from CIEE and InterExchange states that in a typical year, 20% of applicants would have been interviewed by March before the summer season and 70% would either have visas or appointments.

“There’s a variety of different factors,” Clay Lewis, employer and community engagement manager at InterExchange, said. “The crux of it is that students need to be able to schedule their visa interview to be able to get their visas and book flights and come on the program for this summer.”

Extending PP 10052 through March 31 backed up the process, and the other part of the problem comes from U.S. consulates around the world not prioritizing nonimmigrant visas due to state department reopening guidelines and a backlog of work for consulate officers.

“There’s only a handful of consulates around the world that are issuing appointments for nonimmigrant visas and prioritizing nonimmigrant visas. Students need to be able to go set an appointment at a U.S. consulate and apply for a visa, and getting those appointments prioritized is important,” Lewis said.

If a SWT participant received their visa before the PP was issued, they were likely able to travel to the U.S. last summer. Summer 2019 brought 149 SWT participants to Big Sky and 184 participants came the following winter. Beginning in Jan. 2020, only 10 students traveled to Big Sky for the winter season and summer 2020 saw 14, for a total of 24 SWT students in Big Sky in 2020 as of Aug. 3, 2020.

“For Big Sky in particular, we’re anticipating this summer to be extremely busy,” Johnson said.

“Lone Mountain Ranch (LMR) has, for a long time, always had J-1 students participate in our work force. Anywhere between 10-15 students per season and those employees would consist of housekeeping, dishwashers and cooks,” Ryan Kunz, general manager of LMR, said.

Students who work in seasonal communities through the SWT program are paid the same rate as other employees. They are paid by their employer and pay taxes. Money made often goes back into the local economy through socializing, entertainment and necessities.

Jobs that are filled are not taken by those holding J-1 visas, CIEE and InterExchange emphasized. In the shoulder seasons, seasonal towns often find that the local or college workforce is not enough to fill the positions required to keep businesses open and operating.

“It’s really hurting all our businesses, especially the smaller ones on how to keep up with our business demands right now, and if we don’t see them come this summer, it’s going to be really challenging to live normal lives and do what we want to do,” Kunz said.

Away from the economy, the addition of SWT students adds diversity to areas, like Big Sky, that might not get it otherwise. SWT students participate in the program primarily for the cultural experience.

“Big Sky has welcomed international university students from over 15 countries over the past 20 plus years and we greatly value the SWT program bringing diversity to our community, as well as an opportunity for Americans to share our culture and get to know people and create lasting friendships,” Johnson said. She mentioned a SWT individual she befriended who worked at Big Sky Resort and was from Brazil.

“I love Brazil just because of Vinny,” she said.

“Big Sky Resort, as well as the larger ski and outdoor industries as a whole, host students through the J-1 visa program, a cultural and educational exchange program for international college students. These students have always been an essential part of the Big Sky team, bringing diversity, friendships, and the exchange of culture that we have valued for many years. In the past, the summer work travel program has helped the resort staff positions throughout both the winter and summer seasons. The J-1 visa program at Big Sky Resort represents a small, albeit valued portion of the labor force at Big Sky Resort. Without a strong dependency on an international workforce, Big Sky has been fortunate to provide the opportunity for many local teammates to return year after year,” said Troy Nedved General Manager of Big Sky Resort.

Other employers in Big Sky that have utilized the SWT program include Buck’s T-4, Spanish Peaks, 320 Guest Ranch, the Corral, Rainbow Ranch Lodge, Gallatin Riverhouse, Hungry Moose, Yellowstone Club, Moonlight Basin and Lotus Pad.

“That’s the whole goal of the program is that we’re helping… promote public diplomacy, and people who have a favorable and good view of the U.S. in other countries, they’re going to be the future lawyers and parents and policy makers in other countries,” Johnson said. Seventy five percent of cultural exchange participants report coming away from the program with a more positive view of the U.S., according to the Alliance for International Exchange.

Lewis said he was cautiously optimistic that the problems SWT programs are facing will be resolved. He has heard some good news coming from different consular services on visas and hopes more will be able to begin prioritizing nonimmigrant visas and scheduling interviews. “It’s safe to say there’s going to be more students in 2021, but we might not hit 2019 levels,” Lewis said.

“Holistically, it’s great for them and for us. I think it’s a really great program, so it’s sad to see kind of where it is right now,” Kunz said.

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