After some concern, J-1 Visa program going strong
Despite some earlier fears that the Trump administration might curtail or end the J-1 Visa program that brings large numbers of international students to the Outer Banks each summer, the program has remained untouched and participation appears to be as robust as usual.
International Student Outreach Program (ISOP) Chair Jamie Bond told the Sentinel that, so far, the student numbers "have been right on par with previous years." She added that this season, ISOP has "had a tremendous amount of community support, and we have more local organizations and businesses involved than ever."
Last summer, about 1,500 students visited and worked here. Bond told the Sentinel that previous years' numbers show that the J-1 students start arriving as early as February, then the numbers sharply rise in May and reach their peak in June, when more than half of the students arrive.
International students have been coming to the Outer Banks for more than 20 years, through the J-1 Visa Summer Work Travel Program. And as the visitors take jobs in restaurants, retail shops and supermarkets during tourist season, they have become a regular feature of summer life on the Outer Banks.
”The infusion of Summer Work Travel students enables our businesses to stay open longer and at greater scale,” Bond stated. “I have talked to countless business owners in the Outer Banks who tell me they cannot operate their businesses without the J-1 exchange visitors who come here."
The J-1 program was created in 1961 by the Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act. It is operated by the State Department, which supervises and coordinates overseas recruiting organizations, U.S.-based sponsor organizations and U.S. employers in placing foreign students who want to learn more about U.S. culture while working here during summer vacation.
ISOP was founded in 2014 to provide resources and programs to assist international students coming to the Outer Banks.
With reports that the travel program was under review by the Trump administration in 2017, concerns had arisen that it could be headed for extinction.
After President Trump signed the "Buy American, Hire American" executive order in April 2017 that targeted the H-1B visa program — which brings foreign workers to the U.S. to fill high-skill jobs — the Wall Street Journal reported that a White House-led working group was examining employment-based programs that are part of the J-1 Visa Summer Work Travel Program.
Later that year, program advocates hailed what they saw as indications of strong congressional support for the program. Since then, Bond said, there have been no new administration efforts to restrict or eliminate the program.
Ilir Zherka, executive director of the Alliance for International Exchange, said he is “grateful that many members of Congress, governors and officials within the Administration have expressed their strong support for international exchange programs. While we understand that some questions remain about these programs, we also know that reports have shown that they achieve their goals of increasing participant understanding of the United States, improving people's perceptions of our country, and strengthening our economy.”
Meanwhile, members of the community are working to make the students’ stay here as pleasant and productive as possible.
Working with Outreach Ministries OBX, Rev. David Daniels said nearly 150 bicycles have already been given out to the students. The weekly international student dinners — held every Tuesday night from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Baum Center in Kill Devil Hills — are set to start up again, beginning on June 11.
Rev. Jim Southern, pastor of Corolla Chapel, said he is also working with volunteers to refurbish used bicyles to lend to the students. The church, located at 1136 Corolla Village Road in Corolla, will also once again host weekly international dinners every Wednesday night, starting June 5. "We were averaging between seventy and a hundred young people every week last year," Southern said.
Purchasing a van last year, Southern said trips are being planned for shopping and sightseeing at the Wright Brothers Memorial, the aquarium, Jennette's Pier, Hatteras Island and "to the mountains to go hiking."
"If we didn't do these trips," Southern explained, "most of the young people would just work, work, work — and never get off the island." With seating for 13 students on each trip, they are encouraged to reserve a spot and can access a calendar of events online at www.ccisom.org.
ISOP’s Bond noted that, "We've also worked with the Outer Banks Hospital and local law enforcement to implement an ID program this year.” With a "generous donation" from First Flight Rotary, every student attending an orientation is provided an ID card with his information, sponsor information and emergency contact.
"Thanks to the partnership of many local businesses," she added, "our exchange visitors are able to show this ID for local discounts and admission."
Additional weekly orientations are scheduled at the Outer Banks YMCA in Nags Head starting at 9 a.m. on June 11, 18 and 25. For more information, students can access the ISOP website at www.obxisop.com.