Cape May, NJ- New Jersey businesses employed about 6,000 students on summer work travel J-1 visas last year, many of them at shore businesses. About two-thirds of those students worked in Cape May County. Approximately 100,000 students come to the United States each year through the program, and stay for up to four months.
The J-1 visa program was established by the State Department to promote cultural exchanges by allowing foreign students to visit the United States and work at an American business while on break from school. Students sign up for various jobs, and are placed with a business that fits their area of interest. Many of them work in housekeeping jobs or restaurants as prep or bus person.
Normally the students have a prearranged job offer prior to their journey to the United States. Once they arrive, they get established in housing and work out transportation,often by biking to their jobs.
This summer at the Victorian Motel, we employed four students; two from Lithuania, one from Hungary, and one from Romania. In our business the students are paid market competitive wages. We had a great crew, most working for the first time, and they performed their assigned tasks brilliantly. We also employed three Cape May County residents in our housekeeping department this summer.
Critics argue that the J-1 Visa program takes jobs away from the local community. In our case, there were no walk-in applications for housekeeping positions rejected or turned away. Without the J-1 students we hired the summer would have been difficult if not impossible to manage.
What’s frustrating is the J-1 program has recently come under attack by critics who group the working students in with those that would unscrupulously engage in human trafficking. While there have been complaints of employers abusing or underpaying students, those complaints represent the smallest percentage possible.
The Cape May County Chamber of Commerce urged its members to write their legislators to exclude the J-1 program from human trafficking initiatives. To me it seems crazy to penalize a system that is crucial to so many in tourism related businesses.
More importantly, the benefit to the young people, willing to pack up and leave their home in Europe, many for the first time, would be lost, and they’d be prevented from engaging in a cultural experience to last a lifetime.