Immigration bill: Will Shore workers go by the board?

Students working as lifeguards at Morey's Pier water park in Wildwood (from left): Shan Li of China; Sandra Rapimbergaite from Lithuania; Semyon Misiura from Ukraine; and Masha Lushkova of Moscow.
Students working as lifeguards at Morey's Pier water park in Wildwood (from left): Shan Li of China; Sandra Rapimbergaite from Lithuania; Semyon Misiura from Ukraine; and Masha Lushkova of Moscow.
Posted: June 23, 2013

EVERY SPRING they cross America's borders to soak up our culture and serve up hotcakes at boardwalk breakfast shacks along the Jersey Shore.

Thousands of foreign college students enrolled in the State Department's J-1 visa program work in New Jersey every year. They fluff hotel pillows, dole out free samples of vanilla-nut fudge and scrutinize the height of every little runt looking to ride an upside-down roller coaster, and their unusual accents are as much a part of Shore lore as seagulls and outdoor showers.

But now tourism officials and business owners - not just in the Garden State but across the nation - are worried that provisions in the U.S. Senate's immigration-reform bill aimed at securing the border with Mexico could wind up sinking or shrinking the tourist season nationwide.

For those who employ students from overseas, the key issue in the bill is the addition of a $500 fee, to be paid to the State Department, for each student coming to the United States for work or travel. Last year, about 91,000 students came to the U.S. through the J-1 program, about 6,000 of whom came to New Jersey.

The students, mainly from Eastern Europe, Asia and the Middle East, are the key to the Jersey Shore's "shoulder" seasons in the spring and fall, a Cape May County official said - the reason that piers, amusement parks and, in turn, local shops and restaurants can open during that time.

"Without them, we would not be able to have the length of season we do," said Vicki Clark, president of the county's chamber of commerce. "Our high school students are still in school in the spring and our college students go back early."

Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., one of the Senate's so-called Gang of Eight who first worked on the bill, is aware of the concerns in New Jersey, a spokesman said last week, and he will discuss them further when a final version is hammered out. The Senate advanced the bill last week and Menendez has said he hoped to see it passed by July 4.

The House of Representatives is drafting its own bill, a spokesman for Republican U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo said.

"The congressman is very much aware of the importance this visa program has for the Jersey Shore," LoBiondo spokesman Jason Galanes said of his boss, who represents parts of the Shore.

The proposed $500 fee would help finance an $8.3 billion "Southern Border Security Strategy."

Michael McCarry, executive director of the Alliance for International Education and Cultural Exchange in Washington, D.C., said the students could not take on that extra expense because most already are paying between $1,200 and $1,500 to come to the U.S.

Most sponsor agencies are nonprofits, McCarry said, and they help connect students with employers, gauge their English skills and find housing. Those agencies, along with the New Jersey Travel Industry Association, and even elected officials in Ireland, have contacted the Senate and recently visited the U.S. Capitol to discuss the J-1 fees.

"The whole design was so that kids who don't have a great deal of financial means can still travel to the United States," McCarry said. "It's a great piece of public diplomacy."

The $500 fee most likely would have to be paid by the employer, such as Morey's Piers in the Wildwoods, which each year has hundreds of overseas student workers.

Denise Beckson, Morey's director of operations and human resources there, said the company spent $413,454 to run the international program in 2012, although Medicare and Social Security contributions are not needed for J-1 student employees.

The immigration bill could add hundreds of thousands more to those costs. "The cost to administer the J-1 program correctly is not cheap to begin with," Beckson said.

On Monday, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, accused U.S. companies of taking advantage of the J-1 program, saying that it has "morphed into a low-wage jobs program." He noted an incident in 2011, when J-1 students at Hershey's chocolate plant in Pennsylvania staged a walkout over working conditions.

Sanders proposed an amendment that would "restore the program's status as a genuine cultural exchange, not a jobs program," believing that it would open up more employment opportunities for American high school and college students.

"Nobody can tell me that we need to bring young people from all over the world to work at entry-level jobs because there are not young Americans who want to do that job," Sanders says on his website. "With the unemployment rate for young people in this country being extraordinarily high, nobody with a straight face can make that claim."

As part of the "cultural-exchange" requirement of the J-1 program, Beckson said, Morey's organizes sightseeing and educational trips and hosts themed parties "nearly every night" in the summer, including a Thanksgiving in July.

"You're sort of like their parent when they're here," she said.

Sharon Franz, president of the state tourism association and marketing director for Atlantic City's Steel Pier, said cutting back the J-1 program would not mean more jobs for students in New Jersey.

"We do not have enough people locally for those jobs," she said. "Besides the [Mexican border] fence, this J-1 visa program is the biggest issue people are having with this immigration bill. This is a very important program for the tourism industry."

On Twitter: @JasonNark

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