Cape, Islands, and Berkshires Could Go Without J-1 Visa Foreign-Worker Program This Summer

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This summer, businesses on Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, and in western Massachusetts could be without some of their foreign help.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of State announced that it would be suspending cultural exchange visa programs, including the J-1 visa, for 60 days. Initially, the ban is set to last until May 12. Then, the department plans to review the program every 30 days thereafter to see if it is safe to continue it amid the coronavirus pandemic.

In addition to allowing students to attend college in the United States, the J-1 visa features a summer work travel program that attracts mostly low-skill labor. In 2018, the summer work program in Massachusetts had 6,588 participants, according to the State Department’s web site. Participants include people from many European countries — like Italy, Spain, and France — that now have many coronavirus cases, as well as China, where the outbreak originated.

Now, it’s unclear if business in areas of Massachusetts that typically draw many visitors in summertime will have that same level of help from foreign countries this summer.

 “The situation regarding COVID 19 continues to evolve rapidly,” a spokesman for the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs said in an email message to New Boston Post. “The health, safety, and welfare of exchange participants, and of the Americans with whom they interact, remains the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs’ … highest priority.”

New Boston Post contacted several companies that usually employ J-1 visa workers. A few provided statements.

Steve Klemenz, the general manager of the Hyannisport Club golf course in the town of Barnstable, said his business can manage without the program.

“We have sponsored a minimal number of J-1’s (less than six),” Klemenz said in an email message. “They are not scheduled to arrive until June 1. If they are not allowed to travel to the USA, we do not anticipate any service issues at this time. We will adjust and cover the shifts.”

Morning Glory Farm in Edgartown on Martha’s Vineyard is another employer that uses the J-1 visa program left in uncertainty about its future this year.

“We are following guidance from the state department,” Jana Kumar told New Boston Post in an email message.

Elsewhere, Six Flags is a major J-1 employer nationwide. Six Flags New England, which operates in Agawam, Massachusetts, also uses the J-1 visa program – ordinarily.

“We will continue to monitor this evolving situation, and take our guidance from federal, state and local authorities,” Six Flags New England spokeswoman Jennifer McGrath said by email. “We look forward to opening for our guests at which time it is appropriate to do so.”

According to Six Flags New England’s web site, park officials had anticipated opening for the season on Saturday, April 18, but it is now unclear if that will be the case.

Jessica M. Vaughan, the director of policy studies at the immigration-restrictionist Center for Immigration Studies, commended the State Department’s decision and thinks employers across the state will do fine without the program.

She said the move should help slow the spread of coronavirus and said cultural exchange programs are “non-essential travel.”

“Their employers need not despair, unfortunately, it is likely that they can easily find replacements among the many American workers who find their employment disrupted by the pandemic,” Vaughan said in an email message to New Boston Post. “I think we also will see that, contrary to what the exchange worker recruiters and employers claim, these programs are not vital to our economy, but actually superfluous, and cause displacement of U.S. workers.”

“It will be hard for the employers to claim a severe shortage of workers, especially if Americans refrain from travel and outings for an extended period of time,” she added. “Indeed, the government should suspend the entry of all foreign workers until the economy and public health situation stabilizes.” 

The Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce could not immediately be reached for comment.