Last week, the Trump administration declared an intention to eliminate the J-1 visa program, which since its in inception in 1946 has created a way for hundreds of thousands of foreign-born people to live and work in the U.S. before returning to their home country.
The Council On International Educational Exchange (CIEE), a work/travel/internship program for international high-school and college students, relies on four of the five J-1 visa categories slated for review including summer work travel (SWT), intern, trainee, camp counselor, and au-pair.
But now that the news of these potential cuts has broke, folks working at the CIEE headquarters — which is based in Portland — are concerned for the future of their organization.
“Cutting the J-1 visa would destroy our dream and our mission,” said Mustafa Al-Taie, who works as a customer service rep, assisting students from around the world through CIEE. “There would be a struggle that’s for sure. The company would probably shrink in size and employees would be laid off.”
Although these cuts are unconfirmed at this point, they are part of a broader review on foreign workers by the Trump administration, which kicked off back in April when they unveiled a new executive order titled “Buy American, Hire American.” That order targets the H1-B visa specifically and wants to require that employers vigorously screen for undocumented applicants because of the perception that large numbers of cheap foreign workers drive down wages.
But it’s important to note that although CIEE relies on the J-1 visa, the organization does not provide a path to immigration or to America’s labor market.
During an interview with the Phoenix, Al-Taie noted the irony that Trump’s selling these revisions as ways to increase wages and rates of employment, when in fact they’d lay off hundreds of workers (not just at CIEE, but any organization that relies on the J-1 visa) and deprive American employers of the seasonal workforce their business needs.
“The administration is saying 'Buy American, Hire American', but it’s not like Americans won’t be impacted,” said Al-Taie. “These employers really rely on our support to provide them with these young, eager workers. Otherwise, they’d be out of business.”
“The typical job length is so short that the impact on the labor market is very small,” said Phil Simon, the vice president of CIEE’s work exchange programs. “In fact, we’d argue that we have a positive impact.”
According to a report by the research firm EurekaFacts, half (50.8 percent) of surveyed employers stated that the absence of SWT participants would have a big negative impact on their revenues.
Last week the Los Angeles Times shed light on just two of the many industries that could be affected by the absence of cheaper foreign workers: ski resorts and national parks, where about 12,000 J-1 visa carrying people work around the country. Without the seasonal help, employers are worried about taking a big economic hit.
In 2016, there were 1,730 camp counselor program participants and 2,550 summer work travel participants in Maine, mostly in customer service positions.
“They come here and work seasonal jobs that most American kids would probably not want to do,” said Al-Taie. “And then after they work for four months, they usually spend their earned money here in America during their one-month grace period. They pay taxes too.”
In 2016 participants of the CIEE’s SWT program contributed about $509 million to the U.S. economy, but its value, Al-Taie says, extends beyond just an economic one. The CIEE and other cultural exchange organizations that sponsor the J-1 visa often write in their mission statements that their programs function as a vital tool in foreign diplomacy.
“At CIEE, we believe that by building mutual understanding between the people of the U.S. and people of other nations, we are all stronger, safer, and more prosperous,” wrote a CIEE staffer in a press release.
The same report cited earlier found that after living and working in America, 76.1 percent of SWT participants reported that they returned home with a deeper understanding and appreciation of American culture. And during a time where, according to the Pew Research Center, only 49 percent of global audiences are favorably inclined toward the U.S., compared to 64 percent two years ago, many are considering the work of cultural exchange vital.
“It’s eye opening for a lot of students to experience a different culture and learn more about Americans outside of Hollywood,” said Al-Taie. “They go back to their home country as an ambassador for the U.S.”
As someone who’s emigrated from Babylon Iraq to Portland in 2007, Al-Taie understands the immense value in experiencing America first hand. Al-Taie got his degree in Education from the University of Southern Maine and enjoys his work at CIEE because he gets to help young people from around the world achieve their life goals. It reminds him of the time he grew up in war-torn Iraq, listening to Michael Jackson, watching Hollywood movies, and yearning for his own chance at achieving the American dream.
He hopes that the J-1 visa remains protected, so he can continue to do the work he does empowering youth from around the world.
“I’m helping them achieve what I achieved,” said Al-Taie. “It’s so great to pass that on, and let them explore what America’s all about: hardworking people.”
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