Ceren Han, 20, of Turkey operates a ride Thursday at Funtown Splashtown USA in Saco. Han holds a J-1 visa,which allows foreign college students to work in the U.S. as part of a cultural exchange program. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

Nonprofit agencies that sponsor foreign students in Maine and the businesses that hire them are worried that the Trump administration is preparing to gut a visa program that promotes cultural exchange and fills critical labor gaps during the summer tourism season.

The White House is reportedly seeking to dramatically reduce or eliminate five categories of the J-1 visa that allow international college students to temporarily work in the United States.

The White House has not confirmed it is contemplating changes, but nonprofits such as CIEE, an international study abroad agency based in Portland, are convinced it is trying to end the program as part of the administration’s push to buy and hire American.

Maine businesses hire thousands of foreign students every year for seasonal jobs at amusement parks, hotels and summer camps. Those students typically do entry-level jobs that employers can’t fill with local workers.

But the program’s main emphasis is cultural exchange, and denying young people from dozens of countries the opportunity to experience U.S. culture and values could have ramifications for American diplomacy and national security, warned Meghann Curtis, vice president of international exchange programs at CIEE, which arranges study and travel programs for U.S. and foreign students.

“I think there is a grave misperception here that this will free up more opportunities for Americans, that they will flock to these jobs,” Curtis said. “(But) if we are not having these kinds of exchanges with people across the world, then we don’t know each other and that makes us less safe.”

VALUE TO LOCAL COMMUNITIES

According to the Wall Street Journal, the White House is contemplating major reductions in five categories of J-1 visas: summer work-travel, camp counselors, au pairs, interns and trainees. The J-1 program, which is run by the State Department, has 14 categories – including visas for high school and university students, teachers and researchers – that are reportedly not under review.

Roughly 100,000 students come to the U.S. on work-travel visas and another 20,000 as summer camp counselors every year.

“We continue to implement J-1 visa programs at the same levels we have for the past few years. We are aware of the support that American businesses have shown for the program and its value to their local communities,” a State Department official said in a prepared statement Wednesday. The department referred questions about possible policy changes to the White House, which did not respond to a request for comment.

A manager at Funtown Splashtown USA in Saco said the foreign students are crucial to the amusement park.

“If the administration eliminates this program, I don’t know how we would operate the park,” said Ed Hodgdon, the marketing manager. The park hires 90 to 100 J-1 students every year, about 20 percent of its workforce.

It’s an annual struggle to find local employees to work entry-level jobs in the park, which is why Funtown has been using J-1 workers for close to 20 years, Hodgdon said. The company even bought a nearby motel two years ago to house the students, and owns three vans to ferry them to and from work and to cultural activities it sets up.

Students earn the same amount as their American co-workers and work 32 to 40 hours a week, Hodgdon said. If they want to pick up more work, local fast-food businesses are clamoring to hire foreign students for extra shifts. Despite the workload, he insists the objective is international exchange.

Andrija Vujovic, 22, of Montenegro operates the Wild Mouse Roller Coaster at Funtown. Manager Ed Hodgdon said foreign students with J-1 visas are crucial to the park, which hires 90 to 100 of them every year, about 20 percent of its workforce. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

“It is not a low-income employment program,” Hodgdon said. “They are not here primarily to make money, they are here for a cultural experience.”

On Wednesday, the White House held a conference call with hundreds of businesses that hire J-1 students, including Funtown, to get input about the program, but did not disclose what it plans to do, said Jekka Cormier, the park’s J-1 coordinator.

“Our fear is, we don’t know how serious this is,” she said.

UNWANTED JOBS, STUDENTS VETTED

Maine businesses hosted 2,550 J-1 visa holders in 2016. The communities with the biggest number of working students were also those with a robust summer tourism economy, such as Old Orchard Beach, Ogunquit and Bar Harbor, that also use other foreign work programs.

Ceren Han, 20, of Turkey, was operating the helicopter ride Thursday afternoon at Funtown. It is her second season working at the park, and she’s made friends with people from the U.S., Serbia, Jordan, Russia and Ukraine.

“I love this area,” she said. “I have so many friends here.”

Maine’s summer camps also rely on foreign students and teachers – 1,730 camp counselors came to the state on J-1 visas last year.

“I appreciate the political atmosphere and concern that foreigners are taking American jobs, but it is really not the case in the camp world,” said Lisa Tripler, owner of Kamp Kohut, a boys and girls camp in Oxford. Staffing a camp is always difficult, especially finding people who can teach specialized activities such as windsurfing or fencing, Tripler said. Most American college students are more interested in getting a well-paying job or an internship in the summer, not working at a camp, she noted.

“It is a carefully crafted program that is working to promote international exchange,” Tripler said. “It is not an immigration thing. When the counselors are done, they go back to their countries. They are not sneaking in to stay.”

Maine Sens. Angus King and Susan Collins and Rep. Chellie Pingree all have signed letters to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson expressing their support for the J-1 program and underlining its importance to Maine’s seasonal economy.

Exchange students “not only work in our local businesses, they also shop in our stores, eat in our restaurants and rent local accommodations,” King and Collins said in a letter also signed by 15 other senators. “Their absence would have real-world impact on local economies throughout the country.”

The J-1 program is funded through fees, not taxes. CIEE and other international exchange agencies sponsor students for visas and help them get jobs. The visas last about four months, which includes about 30 days to travel in the U.S. after finishing work.

CIEE sponsors about 25,000 foreign students on J-1 visas every year. The company charges fees to students that average about $2,000 and include health insurance and 24-hour support.

The agency vets students and employees, holds orientations, checks in monthly with students and organizes cultural activities. Students are allowed to work only in the position they agreed to, and are prohibited from certain jobs, such as manufacturing, construction, agriculture, adult entertainment, domestic help and commission sales.

J-1 PROGRAM HAS DRAWN CRITICISM

Abuses in the J-1 program have been raised periodically by independent groups and the federal government. In a 2005 report, the Government Accountability Office found that the State Department had insufficient oversight to prevent exploitation, such as charging illegal fees, withholding paychecks, or exposing students to unsafe working and housing conditions. A 2015 GAO report found the State Department had improved program monitoring, but still didn’t have a way to make sure students were not being charged unexpected fees or were getting appropriate cultural opportunities outside the workplace.

The J-1 program has been criticized by groups such as the Southern Poverty Law Center for exposing foreign students to dangerous conditions and even human trafficking, and for undercutting American workers. But Curtis, from CIEE, said it has been reformed three times over the past decade to address problems, and she disputed the notion that cultural exchange is secondary to finding workers.

“The truth is, they are more exposed to American culture and American people by working in these jobs than they would be as a tourist,” Curtis said.

Although American business don’t have to pay payroll taxes for J-1 students, the cost of the program outweighs any financial benefit, she said.

“Is it a program that is taking jobs away? Our findings really say no,” Curtis said. “Employers say that they can’t fill the jobs without these programs.”

Peter McGuire can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:

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