Housing Shortage Seen As Greater Impediment for Summer Workers
On April 13, the Door County Visitor Bureau (DCVB) brought representatives from student visa sponsors and the United States Department of State before local business owners to discuss the purpose, process and goals of the J-1 Student Work and Travel Visa program.
Visa officials recognize the potential for changes to the visa program under changing federal administrations, but haven’t seen any negative effects yet. Instead, offering housing is the tightest bottleneck for the availability of J-1 visa students in Door County.
“Housing continues to be a fundamental weakness of the program and the primary complaint of exchange visitors,” said Shelia Grant, program analyst with the Department of State (DOS).
While some complaints across the country stem from housing conditions, in Door County, the housing doesn’t even exist.
“In our area, everything that someone can sleep in has been converted to a rental property for tourists,” said Phil Berndt, membership director with the DCVB. “When we talk about doing a campus, that doesn’t make sense for the county.”
Stacie Tollaksen, chair of the Wisconsin Dells J-1 Consortium, explained the campus that communities in the Wisconsin Dells constructed to address the same problem. Through public-private partnerships, the city constructed the first general workforce housing not specific to any one business. The Wisconsin Dells donated the land to a private developer who constructed rooms to house more than 1,200 temporary employees.
Egg Harbor and Sister Bay are considering similar models.
“Even at 1,200 there’s a waiting list of employers that want to get their students into the dorm,” said Tollaksen. “This has really sped up in the last three years, all this housing. A couple of employers got it and went forward and then everyone else realized, well that’s how you attract your students to come work for you.”
Short of building affordable housing developments, which have consistently been stifled by local residents in Door County, Tollaksen said changes to zoning and other ordinances can open the door for different uses that accommodate housing needs. In the Wisconsin Dells, zoning ordinances opened up otherwise abandoned motels into temporary housing units.
The federal administration under President Donald Trump has signed executive orders limiting travel to the United States from certain countries while calling for a reduction in the number of visas leaving the United States. Grant and Becky Davis from the visa sponsor InterExchange said the J-1 visa program has not been affected but they are always prepared for changes.
“As we see it right now we don’t anticipate any major changes,” said Davis. “Republicans and Democrats have been proponents of this program. We don’t see that changing at any time soon.”
The effect of Trump’s directives may not have an effect on the number of visas available or the program’s explicit policies, but rather in visa interviews.
Every J-1 hopeful must interview with someone from the United States State Department at the U.S. Embassy in their home country before being granted a visa. While there may be an increased number of available visas, that doesn’t always mean every one will go to a student.
The interviews vet students for their ability to speak English, their knowledge of where they are going and ensuring they will be successful in the United States. Some get turned away weeks before they are expected to start work. Visa sponsors don’t know if these interview processes will get stricter.
After dealing with some challenges with work conditions and the post-recession threat that these students were taking jobs away from Americans, the program refocused its emphasis on cultural exchange.
“It is first and foremost a cultural exchange program, it’s not a work program,” said Grant. “It’s a public diplomacy tool that the Department of State uses to promote mutual understanding and provide exchange opportunities.”
Berndt said the diplomacy of the visa program is often overlooked in favor of economic arguments.
“We’re not threatening American jobs, we’re creating that ambassadorship that helps them know we’re not scary people,” said Berndt. “When they hear propaganda they know it’s not true.”
Last year, Door County welcomed 340 students on a J-1 visa and many have already received their 2017 visas and booked their flights for the approaching summer season.