BUZZ: Jackson’s J-1s in Jeopardy

By on September 6, 2017

Local businesses are concerned about the implications of Trump’s changes to visa program.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – A White House executive order “Buy American, Hire American” has ignited backlash and concern among members of Wyoming’s tourism industry. The order threatens an international work visa program familiar to many local businesses, and upon which many businesses depend.

In response to the order, the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce issued a letter to Wyoming Senators John Barrasso and Mike Enzi and Congresswoman Liz Cheney, as well as Governor Matt Mead, urging them to defend the J-1 visa program.

Trump signed the order in April to review and tighten visa programs to skilled foreign workers and to more strictly enforce it. While the J1 program is not specifically mentioned, worries have circulated about the program reducing or even eliminating certain categories of the visa. The Wall Street Journal reported his administration is considering “major reductions in cultural exchange programs,” which include the J-1 visa program.

The J-1 is a non-immigrant cultural and educational exchange program offered to college-aged students around the world. Teton County and its surrounding national parks have a lot to lose without it. The Chamber of Commerce estimates the number of J-1 employees in Teton County annually is in the thousands. Without them, businesses in the tourism and service industry might not be able to survive.

“Reducing access to legal summer workers could devastate the customer service provided by our businesses in peak times with reduced hours of operations, lay-offs for year-round Wyoming employees or even closing of some businesses,” Chamber president Anna Olson wrote in the letter to Wyoming legislators.

In bold type, Olson writes that J-1 work travel students do not take jobs away from Wyoming workers. On the contrary, Olson said, “the infusion of these students enables our businesses to stay open longer and at a greater scale. This allows us to employ more Wyoming workers and to keep more Wyoming workers on year-round payrolls.”

Carrie Holder, assistant human resources director at Xanterra in Yellowstone National Park, hires hundreds of J-1 work travel students a year. This summer, 670 international students worked for Xanterra in the park, out of 2,600 total. Without them, Holder says, she would not be able to staff her company for the whole season.

Once upon a time, peak season was four months long, from May until August. “That’s staffable,” Holder said. Now, the park is at capacity from April until mid-October. Most of Holder’s employees are college students who have to go back to school in August. “I’m still trying to get guests serviced all the way through mid-October,” Holder said. That’s when J-1 students are especially valuable.

“I can’t even imagine trying to open and close some of these properties without these students,” Holder said. “We’d just be dying.”

As soon as she heard the news, Holder began reaching out to Enzi and Barrasso. Like Olson, she urged them to defend the J-1 program. She’s been an advocate for years now, traveling to Washington D.C. to educate electeds on the program’s merits. She even got a moment of face time with Barrasso. But her efforts have a new urgency now.

“If it’s cut, I honestly don’t know what we’re going to do to continue to provide good guest service and keep our doors open,” Holder said. “We try as many avenues as possible to get people interested in coming to the national parks to work.”

Even if they can’t keep up with staffing, the park is bursting at the seams. Visitation has increased by more than 40 percent since 2008. “This visitation growth challenges the park’s ability to manage visitor use in a way that protects resources and offers high-quality, safe visitor experiences,” park officials said in a press release.

Many of the same tourists who visit Xanterra properties in Yellowstone stop through Jackson. Yellowstone generated over $680 million in revenue to gateway communities in 2016. Where Yellowstone struggles to keep up with high visitation Jackson does as well.

Economics aside, Holder says the J-1 program is equally as valuable for the cultural immersion and exchange. Especially in Yellowstone, the young people she hires experience the very best of what the United States has to offer.

“These students come here, are immersed in American culture, have American roommates, learn our culture and hopefully take that back to their home country,” Holder said. “It shows them Americans are good people; we work hard.” Olson’s letter echoed Holder’s.

Trump’s signature on the “Buy American, Hire American” happened months before another signature that expanded the H-2B visa international work program. H-2B visas are temporary work permits designed for a non-agricultural seasonal workforce, whereas J-1 visas are non-immigrant, cultural exchange programs. The businesses that depend on each program are largely the same: restaurants, landscaping businesses, resorts.

But while the future of the J-1 program is uncertain, Trump authorized 15,000 additional H-2B visas in July. NPR reported that the authorization came at the request of the Trump Organization so it could staff two of Trump’s private resorts in Florida: Mar-a-Lago and the Trump National Golf Club.

J-1 workers are safe in Teton County, for now. The White House has made no announcements or changes to policy since Trump’s April signature. So J-1 staffers are still in town, serving coffee, bagging groceries, and hanging out at the J-1 night at the Rose on Sundays. PJH

About Shannon Sollitt

You must be logged in to post a comment Login