As the U.S. House of Representatives gets set to debate proposed changes to the international student worker program as part of comprehensive immigration reform, businesses in Rehoboth Beach are nervous the legislation could hinder hiring of foreign students.
Within the current bill, which passed the Senate 68-32 on June 27, is a change to the J-1 summer work visa, which foreign students in Rehoboth use to come over and work for the season, that would institute a $100 fee per worker to be paid for by the student’s sponsor. The fee could be paid by either the employer or the student. Proceeds from the fee would go to increased border security measures, such as additional border agents, training and equipment.
The fee was reduced from $500 to $100 after an amendment proposed by Republican senators Bob Corker of Tennessee and John Hoeven of North Dakota passed with a bipartisan 69 to 29 vote.
The fee reduction is welcome news to businesses like Funland, one of the largest employers of foreign students. Funland has hired 30 students for this year, who work from mid-June until Sunday, Sept. 8.
Christopher Darr, personnel manager of Funland, said the $100 fee is much more palatable than $500. He said a $500 fee would have killed the program for Funland, since the family-run park could not justify spending $15,000 to hire 30 employees.
Under the $100 fee, Darr said Funland could still participate in the program, either through a cost-sharing arrangement with the students or by not hiring as many students.
"Three thousand dollars is still a lot, but it is much better than $15,000," he said. "It changes the perspective. One hundred dollars is a much different situation."
Students are placed at businesses like Funland through national sponsors, such as Inter Exchange, based in New York City.
Ron Hernandez, director of marketing and communications with Inter Exchange said the program allows students to come to the United States for four months; Hernandez said the work aspect of the program is merely a way to allow the students to support themselves while they are here. He said students are typically placed in resort areas not only because there are seasonal jobs available that coincide with their time here, but the resort season also coincides with the students’ school schedule.
"It’s not a labor program,” Hernandez said.
Funland usually hires 100 to 110 full-time summer employees; Darr said he hires international students because they can work past Labor Day. While many foreign students are typically Russian and Ukrainian, Funland employs students from locales as diverse as Scotland and Lithuania.
“By early to mid August, I start losing lots of American employees back to college, fall sports, and school itself. We are certainly busy for the entire month of August and early September. These students are critical to keeping the park well-staffed and operating at 100 percent,” Darr said.
Hugh Leahy, chairman of the International Student Outreach Program, a joint effort between the Rehoboth Beach-Dewey Beach Chamber of Commerce and Lewes Rehoboth Association of Churches dedicated to helping international students, said, “This is a cultural exchange program at its heart - it would be a shame to lose it, when misunderstandings in the world continue to cause such rancor among nations and when local residents gain so much from the young people visiting.”
Participation in the J-1 visa program has already declined because stronger controls are in place to ensure that the students have jobs before they arrive in U.S. Leahy said local participation is down perhaps 30 percent from the peak years in 2008 and 2009.
“A larger impact has been the state of the U.S. economy, with fewer employers needing as many seasonal workers, and with more of those seasonal jobs being taken by U.S. workers who were otherwise employed and would not take them in better times,” he said.
“Many people say that the foreign students are taking jobs from Americans, and that is just not true. I use foreign students to fill times in my season where I cannot get enough Americans to work,” Darr said.
Ian Koski, spokesman for Sen. Chris Coons, said, “Given its importance to businesses in Delaware's beach communities, Sen. Coons has certainly been keeping tabs on how the J-1 visa program would change under this bill.”
Delaware delegation supports reform
Coons, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which performed a lengthy markup of the bill, said in a floor speech June 11 that the bill was a once-in-a-generation opportunity that will make the country stronger, safer and more vibrant for generations to come.
“America's immigration system today is badly out of sync with our values, and I believe it's up to us, in the current Congress, to fix it,” he said.
In the last days before voting on the bill, the Senate passed the Corker-Hoeven amendment, which was designed as a way to keep the program as a cultural exchange while still securing funding for additional border security measures.
It remains to be seen whether the bill will even get a vote in the House of Representatives, as Speaker John Boehner has indicated he may not bring the bill to the floor without majority Republican support.
Congressman John Carney said the Senate passed version of the bill is a good starting point, and he hopes the House will be given the chance to vote on it.
"One of my priorities in comprehensive immigration reform is making sure it helps create and sustain Delaware jobs," Carney said. "To that end, as the House moves forward, I'll be looking closely at the J-1 visa provisions and soliciting feedback from Delaware business owners about how any changes may affect them."
“Sen. Coons believes immigration reform is not only important to the long-term economic benefit of our state and nation, but to the fabric of this country. No one would say this bill is perfect, but it is a compromise, and it is progress,” Koski said.
The bill is built around four primary objectives, Koski said:
- Creating an accountable path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants that requires them to register for legal status, pass a background check, learn English, pay taxes and work towards citizenship
- Establish a more effective employment verification system that will prevent identity theft, end hiring of unauthorized workers and stop waves of illegal immigration
- Take measures to better secure the U.S. border
- Improve the legal immigration system.
Carper said the bill would strengthen the border and provide a tough but fair path to citizenship for more than 11 million undocumented immigrants. He said he would continue to monitor changes to the cultural exchange visas.
Still, Darr said what is getting lost in the shuffle is that the J-1 program is a cultural exchange program. He said his students take the time to travel and see America after or during the time they work at Funland.
“Yes, these students are here to work and pay the costs they incur from traveling but more importantly they get to experience America and what we are all about for four months. These students then go back and share their experience with people in their country,” he said.
Hernandez said there is also reciprocity; Amercian students participate in similar programs overseas. He said the program, established in 1961, is a form of public diplomacy designed to get young international students engaged in the United States. Should the bill go through as written, employers dropping out of the program could have an effect on relations with sponsors overseas, Hernandez said.
“It is unfortunate that this program is in jeopardy because these students are not here on a pathway to citizenship. They are here to work and travel just as the program says and after four months they go back home because they are in college,” Darr said