Coronavirus Visa Issues, Travel Restrictions Threaten Summer Fun and Seasonal Businesses | National News

The Dutch Soccer School summer camps are going to look quite a bit different this summer.

Namely, they’re going to be a lot less Dutch.

The organization, which operates high-level soccer camps in six states, is known for its Dutch-style training program taught by professional Dutch soccer players who travel to the U.S. each year to coach at the camps and experience American culture.

But not a single Dutch coach has been able to obtain the necessary visa – called a J-1 – to be able to come and work this summer, says Bernard Hartog, the founder and managing director of Dutch Soccer School. Instead, Hartog has had to scramble in recent weeks to find qualified coaches in the U.S. and has needed to limit the number of players allowed at the camps – which also means less revenue.

It’s far from a unique situation. The J-1 program, otherwise known as the Exchange Visitor Program, is a broad visa category that allows foreign workers to come to the U.S. for a short period of time to experience American life and participate in either work or study-based programs.

But applicants and the American businesses that employ them report extreme difficulties, with few foreigners granted the visas this year. And that’s affecting a range of positions, including au pairs, camp counselors, researchers, teachers, doctors and interns. It also includes the Summer Work and Travel Program, which allows international college students to come to the country to work seasonal jobs at resorts, parks, pools, restaurants and summer camps.

The absence of exchange visitors this summer is threatening summer fun and the businesses that provide it – many of which are already struggling to recover from last year, when the pandemic forced them to either dramatically reduce operations or shut down entirely. Summer camps are rushing to try to fill open staff positions as camp dates inch closer, and the situation is straining the operations of resorts and restaurants.

The problem, they say, largely lies in an inability to secure a necessary interview at U.S. consulates around the world. Travel restrictions also remain in effect for people from 33 countries, and only certain J-1 visa holders can apply for exemptions to those bans.

The State Department has been reluctant to relax travel restrictions and visa requirements in order to make the process easier, despite sustained pressure and proffered solutions from alliance groups and some lawmakers.

Frustration over issues with the program has grown in recent months as vaccines become more widely available in some countries around the world and as the U.S. vaccination rates go up and case rates plummet.

American businesses rely each summer on the influx of J-1 visa holders to augment their workforces and, in many cases, add a wanted cultural exchange component to their organizations. Some 300,000 foreign nationals, the vast majority of whom are under the age of 30, come to the U.S. through the program each year.

And though the focus right now is on summer work, sponsor groups say they’re also growing increasingly concerned that teachers and other academics will be unable to come to the U.S. in the fall, leaving schools and academic programs in a lurch.

While job openings in the U.S. have reached record highs, positions filled by J-1 visa holders are often seasonal, short-term or very specific, making it difficult to find American workers for the jobs. The visa program, sponsors also say, is much more about cultural exchange and strengthening international ties than it is about work opportunities.

For Dutch Soccer School, the current issues with the program have meant hiring three times its typical number of coaches, since U.S.-based coaches – most of whom coach at the college level – are generally less able to travel and attend camps in different states. Hartog says they’ve also had to pay the American coaches more, because Dutch coaches are usually provided housing and food and stay with American host families. They also come in part because of the cultural exchange aspect – a draw obviously absent for U.S.-based coaches.

“We have had to really spend a lot of money to recruit higher-level coaches to replace the Dutch coaches,” Hartog says.

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They’ve also had to spend more time and resources training U.S. coaches in the Dutch coaching philosophy. Hartog is still searching for coaches for camps later in the summer, and the uncertainty and difficulty in staffing the camps had led him to cut camper registration by 30% and operate only 32 out of the planned 35 camps.

All of this, too, comes after the organization was only able to hold five camps last summer because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Still, Hartog sees no choice.

“Hard work, and it costs us more money – but we just have to keep our good name up, so next summer, we can do what we normally do,” he says.

President Joe Biden allowed a blanket, pandemic-related restriction on the admittance of certain visa holders, including J-1s, to expire at the end of March. Still, applicants are finding it almost impossible to get an appointment at a U.S. consulate in order to obtain the visa.

Consulates are dealing with a huge backlog of visa applications because of coronavirus-related visa bans and significantly reduced operations because of the pandemic. Many consulates are also still not operating at full capacity.

The State Department says it is prioritizing nonimmigrant visa applications from those with urgent travel needs, diplomats and mission-critical travelers, like those coming to the U.S. to help fight the pandemic. International students, exchange visitors and some other temporary work visa applicants come after that.

“The pandemic continues to severely impact the number of visas our embassies and consulates abroad are able to process. We are making significant efforts with constrained resources to safely return to pre-pandemic workload levels, but are unable to provide a specific date for when this will happen at each post,” a State Department spokesperson said.

The U.S. continues to ban the entry of most noncitizens who are traveling from 33 countries: India, Brazil, China, Iran, South Africa, the United Kingdom, Ireland and the 26 European countries that make up the Schengen Area. Only some J-1 visa holders – including some students, au pairs, interns in government-sponsored programs, and some teachers and scholars – can apply for what’s known as National Interest Exceptions to the travel bans.

Camp counselors and people in the Summer Work and Travel Program, however, do not qualify for an exemption, according to the State Department.

Hartog says he’s all for staying safe and treating the pandemic seriously. But he questions why the government has not made it easier for vaccinated foreigners to come to the U.S. to participate in the exchange program this summer.

“If you’re vaccinated, you’re vaccinated. And I think that would help out so many businesses if they could have vaccinated people traveling over here and fill the jobs that a lot of people can’t fill with American workers,” he says.

In late April, over 500 companies and businesses that rely on J-1 workers wrote to the State Department asking it to surge resources to busy consulates and waive the interview requirement for J-1 visas. The community that relies on the program experienced $1.23 billion in financial fallout because of the pandemic last year, the letter noted.

Then, in May, seven top congressional Democrats wrote to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas urging the agencies to take a number of steps to speed visa processing, including either waiving interview requirements or conducting virtual interviews with secure technology.

The lawmakers argued – as have many in the legal immigration sphere – that the State Department has the authority to do so because of a clause in immigration law allowing consulate officials to waive in-person visa interview requirements because of “unusual or emergent circumstances.”

A once-in-a-century global pandemic, they imply, certainly qualifies as “unusual or emergent.”

The State Department has not done so, and, when asked, did not provide any information about whether they were considering waiving in-person interview requirements for J-1 applicants – though consulate officials have nixed the requirement in certain specific cases where the applicant had previously obtained a J-1 visa and was seeking to participate in the same program, a spokesperson said.

All J-1 visa holders must have a sponsor in the U.S. to monitor them and ensure their welfare while they’re in the country. This is typically not an employer but rather an organization that connects employers with foreign nationals and is designated by the State Department to sponsor J-1 visitors. Over 1,500 for-profit, non-profit, government and private organizations have been designated by the State Department as sponsors.

Leaders of sponsor organizations say they’re incredibly frustrated with the lack of information coming from the State Department over the issue, though for its part the State Department says it has “continually informed and updated program sponsors.” These organizations, too, have suffered severe financial losses because of the pandemic and its effects on visa programs.

The situation has put private sector sponsors in “extremely tenuous existential crises,” says Jeff Laband, the chief operating officer of the Center for International Career Development, which serves as a J-1 program sponsor, and the co-president of the Association of Cultural Exchange Organizations. Sponsor programs rely on fees they charge from employers or applicants.

“Sponsors are going out of business,” Laband says. “We basically have few to no applicants right now because of this stranglehold the government itself has put on its own programs that are managed by us. And they don’t get it – they don’t seem to get it.”

Sponsor organizations also say they’re frustrated at what they see as a lack of urgency to resolve the issues, predicated in part on an erroneous understanding of the exchange visitor program as a work program rather than a program meant to strengthen international relations.

The J-1 program has its roots in the Fulbright Hays Act of 1961, otherwise known as the Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Program. The purpose of the act as written is to “increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries by means of educational and cultural exchange.”

“We’ve always been known as educational and cultural programs, but overnight we were suddenly recategorized as work programs,” says Greg White, president of United Studies Inc.

J-1s visas don’t take American jobs, they say – they help sustain and create jobs.

“They’re not taking jobs from Americans, they’re helping facilitate jobs for Americans. Because, [if not], these locations can’t open up, these schools can’t open up,” says Don Moody, owner of Life Adventures Inc. “Our people who come on our programs go back home. We know they go home. And they take our system of values – American values – back home with them. So they’re not taking American jobs. They’re relieving the stress off of American companies who need their extra help.”

Camp Horseshoe, a residential summer camp for boys in Wisconsin, typically hires about a third of its staff on J-1 visas – about 25 international staffers each year. This year, only four have been able to obtain visas.

Alex Berman, the assistant director of the camp, says they’ve luckily been able to fill the open positions with American workers but that he had more trouble doing so. Some of the positions are specialty roles, like watersports positions, that have always been filled by international counselors. The camp will most miss what the international staff brought to the overall culture, he says.

“It’s a special part of camp,” Berman says. “Kids get to hear different world views, different cultures, and learn about just different world aspects.”

“It’s just really the cultural exchange aspect that we’re going to be missing, which is just too bad,” he says.

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