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

Visa decline

Proclamations and prioritization; SWT students support local businesses

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President Biden rescinded PP 10014—which suspended certain immigrant visas—on Feb. 24, 2021, but PP 10052 remained in effect until March 31. This suspended 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.

“In the past, we have brought J-1 students over from many parts of the world, and we use them in the summer to supplement our local help. We have an apartment where they all stay in town and they enjoy learning about Montana and Ennis, and we’ve been doing this for a long time,” Kris Hauck, owner of the El Western in Ennis, Mont., said. “Many of our summer students have gone on to be very successful either in hotel management or travel services. One is a veterinarian. And they still check in with us from all over the world.” 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 2018 showed nine SWT students working in Ennis. Last summer, no SWT students were employed in town.

“Last year was just really hard for all the local businesses trying to find enough help because by the time we realized everyone was going to think Montana was going to be the best place to get away from Covid, none of us had anticipated the amount of help we ended up needing,” Hauck said. Owners of local businesses ended up working many long hours, she added.

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 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.

“If I could, I would hire all American students, but it’s hard to find a group of friends to come out that all want to live together,” France Kudelski, owner of Sportsman’s Lodge, Restaurant and Casino, in Ennis, said.

Summer 2019 Kudelski employed seven SWT students and is hoping for ten to supplement her workforce this summer. Hauck used two to four students in past years and did not apply to host students this coming summer, thinking it was going to be a no-go.

There are always more jobs available in the summer in Ennis than there are people to work them, Hauck said. “Our high school students who are often good workers have a very short summer because of all the other activities that they’re involved in,” she said.

“We’re not just lodging, we have so many different positions to fill that we felt that we should go for the (J-1) students and American students at the same time,” Kudelski said.

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

“It was always very important to us that when these students came over that we gave them an interactive experience in the community,” Hauck said. Most worked hard and left with a positive impression of the U.S., especially Montana, she 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.

“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 cultural that we have valued for many years. In that past, the SWT program has helped the resort staff positions throughout both the winter and summer seasons,” Troy Nedved, general manager of Big Sky Resort, said.

“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,” Nedved continued.

Other employers in Big Sky, Mont. 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, Lone Mountain Ranch and Lotus Pad.

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.

“It’s been a very good experience for us as a business and our guests always enjoyed visiting with the foreign students, too,” Hauck said.

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