Changes to student visa program could have big effect on tourism economy

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Photo courtesy Morey's Piers/ International student workers gather around a campfire for a s'mores night. Employers like Morey's Piers must provide cultural programming like this for its J-1 visa workers. Photo courtesy Morey's Piers/ International student workers gather around a campfire for a s'mores night. Employers like Morey's Piers must provide cultural programming like this for its J-1 visa workers.

Critics say international workers used for cheap labor

About 600 college students from countries like the Ukraine, Spain and Malaysia will work at Wildwood’s Morey’s Piers this summer, operating rides and arcade games or manning lifeguard stations at the amusement company’s two water parks.

The international workers, or J-1 students, a nickname that comes from the type of visa the students have, come to shore areas throughout Cape May County through a summer work travel program that’s been offered for decades through the U.S. State Department.

But now, local officials and business owners are concerned that including reforms to the J-1 visas and summer work travel program in Congressional immigration and human trafficking legislation could destroy the program, which they say helps seasonal employers, like Morey’s Piers, stay open longer and extend the tourism season.

“I think it’s dangerous,” Denise Beckson, director of human resources at Morey’s Piers, said of the changes Monday. “We would have to shorten our season even more, and that has an impact on everyone, from the guy who sells pizza on the boardwalk to Cisco.”

Critics of the program, however, say that in recent years the summer work travel program has become a way for employers to hire cheap labor, marketed as a cultural exchange. The Center for Immigration Studies, an independent Washington research organization, has also pointed to abuses within the program, like when hundreds of foreign students working in Hershey, Pa. protested in the summer of 2011. Those students claimed that they were underpaid, working too many hours, and excluded from experiencing American culture.

“There have been horror stories about kids being taken advantage of and deceived,” Jerry Kammer, a senior research fellow with the CIS said Tuesday. Kammer also penned the center’s 2011 report about the summer work travel program, called “Cheap Labor as Cultural Exchange, the $100 Million Summer Work Travel Industry.”

About 100,000 students come to the United States each year through the program, and stay for four months. They spend three months working, then are permitted to travel for a month. The students work with sponsors, organizations designated by the State department to see to the day-to-day administration of the program.

In June of 2013, the Senate passed the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act, which focused on sweeping immigration reform. Included in that bill were several proposed measures aimed at protecting international students with oversight regulations, such as limiting the fees sponsor organizations can charge students to come work in the United States, which usually cost upwards of $1,000. It also made it illegal for sponsors to lie or present misleading information to prospective student workers, as well as make information about fees, costs and services publicly available on their websites, among other changes.

While that bill has not yet been taken up in the House, another bill, called the Fraudulent Overseas Recruitment and Trafficking Elimination, or FORTE, act, would make it illegal for sponsors to charge international student workers fees to participate in the program. The FORTE Act was introduced in the House just last month, and is currently in committee.

Both pieces of federal legislation are a major cause of concern to Vicki Clark, president of the Cape May County Chamber of Commerce, who says that changes to the summer work travel program could seriously affect business in the county.

“This is a program from the Department of State about public diplomacy, it is not a work visa,” she said.

In New Jersey, the State Department reports that there are about 5,000 students working through the program. Clark estimates that about two-thirds of those students spend March through October in Cape MayCounty.

In the county, Clark said that employers use the summer work travel program to supplement locals who work here. Without them, she says, businesses would not be able to stay open as long, which could affect the tourism economy.

“Students come and fill these positions when local youth are in school,” Clark said.  “Without these jobs, a lot of local jobs would go away.”

Morey's Piers/ An international student worker at Morey's Piers shows local kids how to use chopsticks. Morey's Piers/ An international student worker at Morey's Piers shows local kids how to use chopsticks. So, the chamber has started a movement to oppose the changes at the national level. Municipalities like Wildwood and North Wildwood have passed resolutions opposing the inclusion of the summer work travel program in national immigration reform legislation.

North Wildwood’s resolution, which was unanimously passed by its city council on June 4, states that “although supplemental to our local workforce, if the Summer Work Travel program were to be eliminated, Cape MayCounty would experience huge economic losses due to our insufficient number of available workers between March and October.”

North Wildwood Mayor Patrick Rosenello said that the Summer Work Travel program should not be included when discussing immigration reform, because the students working in the United States are not planning on moving here permanently.

“These students are not immigrating to the United States,” he said. “They are coming here for the opportunity to work. They are coming here for cultural opportunities.”

Beckson says that at Morey’s Piers, the company works diligently to make sure students receive the cultural experience they were promised, as well as a wage that’s comparable to American workers.

Morey’s plans cultural programming for the students, which include presentations at the county courthouse and seminars with the county’s Volunteers in Medicine. They also work with the Lunch with Lynch foundation and talk to local kids in summer school about their cultural backgrounds, and student workers at Morey’s even have “Thanksgiving” together in the summer, where the international students learn to play football, discuss the American holiday, and talk about what they are thankful for.

“We just had a s’mores party because none of them knew what s’mores were,” Beckson said.

Beckson said that these cultural experiences were something Morey’s had to do, now that the State Department has passed regulations that she says were to help protect workers and ensure the program remained true to its original intent as a cultural exchange. The international students are also provided with a 24/7 hotline they can call to report abuses and get advice as to how to remedy work situations. Students also have to work directly with the public, so they can improve their English and meet Americans.

At Morey’s, the students are paid the same way American workers are. Their first year, they get minimum wage, currently $8.25 in New Jersey. If workers come back for a second season next year, they get a raise. If they take on additional responsibilities at work, they also can get raises, she said.

To Beckson, the oversight from the State Department should be enough. She says the fees students pay go toward their plane tickets, staffing the hotline, and for cultural programming.

“They aren’t buying a job,” she said.

While Kammer says there are employers like Morey’s that are supplementing the local workforce and providing students with a chance to experience the country, there are others around the country that are hiring international students instead of young Americans, and keeping wages down. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 19.2 percent of American teenagers, aged 16-19, were unemployed in May. The total unemployment rate was 6.3 percent.

“To me this is such a sweet program for employers and a bitter program for American kids,” he said. Kammer pointed out that J-1 students do not pay Social Security, Medicare or federal unemployment taxes, so employers do not have to match these taxes for their international employees.

“It was intended to be cultural exchange, it has been misdirected to other purposes, unfortunately,” he said. “And I think the big losers are American young people.”

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