Businesses Fear Trump Attack on Visas

Without program, seasonal jobs could be unfilled

The election of Donald Trump created a wave of uncertainty and fear among undocumented immigrants across the country, prompting rumors of detentions and deportations to spread quickly through the South Fork towns and East Hampton officials to assert that local law enforcement personnel would not carry out immigration enforcement. 

Now, South Fork residents who own businesses in the tourism and hospitality industries have a related cause for concern: Under Mr. Trump’s “Buy American and Hire American” executive order, signed in April, the J-1 visa exchange visitor program, which provides a sizable portion of the summer work force here, may be eliminated. 

The Wall Street Journal reported on Aug. 27 that an interagency group set up by the White House is focusing on employment aspects of the J-1 visa, including its Summer Work Travel program. More than 100,000 foreign students come to the United States each summer under this program, many to resorts, and it allows workers to stay in the country for up to four months. 

According to a study by the research firm EurekaFacts, Summer Work Travel participants contributed about $509 million to the national economy last year, or $5,300 per person. Half the employers surveyed said the absence of these workers would have a sizable negative impact on their revenues, and one-quarter said that without them they might not be able to operate at all. 

The Journal reported that the federal group reviewing the program is also considering changes to it, such as adding a requirement that participating employers demonstrate that they are not able to find American workers. 

According to Chris Gosman, a manager at the Topside, Inlet Cafe, and Clam Bar restaurants at Gosman’s Dock in Montauk, satisfying that requirement would be improbable at best. 

“We need these people,” he said of the mostly college-age servers, busers, and cashiers who he said comprise 15 to 20 percent of the sprawling Gosman complex’s work force. “It’s important that we have them because we don’t have a local labor force capable of filling these jobs.”

Federal action to reduce the number of young workers protected by DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), or remove them from the work force by deportation, which now seems possible unless Congress acts, would also add to the difficulty managers have in filling seasonal positions.   

Mr. Gosman has worked at his family’s businesses since he was a teenager. Three decades ago, Montauk was a popular summer destination for J-1 visa-bearing college students from Ireland, although many American students also filled positions. “Now I get very few,” he said. “Occasionally, but it’s very rare. We don’t have enough local labor to fill the jobs, and any business out there will tell you they need it — restaurants, certainly, but retail, too.” 

Many of the J-1 employees at the Gosman’s restaurants hail from the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and in recent years Gosman’s Dock has employed citizens of Macedonia, Bulgaria, Poland, Ireland, Romania, and Russia, Mr. Gosman said. 

For Keith Davis, who owns the Golden Pear Cafe, which has branches in East Hampton, Bridgehampton, Sag Harbor, and Southampton, students from Bulgaria and Serbia are an ideal fit. “Their university schedule is perfect. Their exams are done by May 15, so they are able to come between May 15 and 20, and they’re here until about Sept. 10. Your three major holidays are covered,” he said. 

He agreed with Mr. Gosman that Americans alone could not fill his summer staffing needs. “When a high school kid comes to apply,” he said, “you can expect to have parents involved, and that means negotiation over vacation time and early leave — always a concern for completing the summer.” 

At one time, his business used to taper off in the second half of August, Mr. Davis said, but starting about five years ago, “the last two weeks of August have become over-the-top busy. As they go back to college, kids that live locally want to take the last two weeks of summer off,” leaving employers short-handed at a most inopportune time. 

“Demand for seasonal employees is tremendous,” Mr. Davis said, and the J-1 Summer Work Travel program “is definitely an effective solution, not only for the Hamptons but from Kennebunkport all the way to Virginia Beach. There are just not enough applicants that will fill those positions. For the administration to assume or even suggest that Americans are losing these jobs is absolutely ridiculous. It’s not true at all.”

The Summer Work Travel program was also intended to build greater understanding around the world of America’s people and culture. Its opponents argue that the program creates unfair competition for American workers by providing cheap labor. Another criticism is that some J-1 visa workers overstay the time allotted.

“That could be an issue,” Mr. Davis agreed, “But it’s not an issue with a threat of terrorism. These people are significantly vetted. My company is vetted — I get calls and emails every year from the State Department. Once you participate, you are subject to all kinds of oversight. But if you want to run your business, you need the employees to do it. The J-1 is definitely a solution for restaurants, for hospitality.”  

Paul Monte, the president of the Montauk Chamber of Commerce, said that, while J-1 workers were “a very critical component of our seasonal workforce,” alternatives, such as “bringing workers from other parts of the country that may have a supply,” might be able to satisfy local demand. “If we could find them from within the country, that is my and most other business owners’ preferred approach.” 

Mr. Monte, whose family owned Gurney’s Inn for many years, estimated that J-1 visa holders typically comprised around 10 percent of the resort and spa’s summer staff when he was its general manager. “I don’t think that it would be wise of anybody in the administration to think you could just eliminate that supply of labor without coming up with alternatives,” he said. 

Paul DeAngelis, an owner of the Lobster Roll restaurant on Napeague, was less concerned about losing workers. More than half his servers are Americans who return each year, he said, so his business would be less affected if the J-1 visa program were eliminated. “My entire kitchen staff comes from Puerto Rico,” a territory of the United States, he said. “It would have an impact,” he said of the program’s elimination, but “I don’t know how major it would be.” 

The Alliance for International Exchange, an association of nongovernmental organizations that advocates for education and cultural exchanges, is urging business owners and other concerned parties to contact their federal representatives to oppose restrictions or the elimination of the J-1 programs. The Council on International Educational Exchange also is urging opposition.

In August, 17 senators wrote to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urging that the Summer Work Travel program be maintained and strengthened. That followed a July letter to Secretary Tillerson from 33 members of the House of Representatives with the same message. 

Representative Lee Zeldin of the First Congressional District, which covers the South and North Forks and Shelter Island, as well as the area westward to Brookhaven and most of Smithtown, was not among the 33 members of Congress to sign the letter. In an email on Tuesday, however, he said there was no indication that changes to the J-1 program were imminent, and that fundamental changes to any visa program would require congressional legislation. The Journal article, however, states that though the J-1 visa was instituted by statute, its individual categories, like Summer Work Travel, can be changed or eliminated by executive action. 

“I recognize the role J-1 and other visa programs play in supporting Long Island’s small businesses, farmers, and the tourist economy,” Mr. Zeldin said.