Visa delays jeopardizing seasonal workforce

Updated at 3:37 p.m. on April 21, 2021.

BLOCK ISLAND was one of the top 50 most expensive zip codes in New England in 2019. / PBN FILE PHOTO/K. CURTIS
BLOCK ISLAND businesses are hoping the U.S. State Department can expedite the visa process so foreign exchange workers can work on the island during the summer season. / PBN FILE PHOTO/K. CURTIS

PROVIDENCE – There could be a shortage of foreign workers in Rhode Island this summer if the U.S. State Department does not expedite the global visa process.

The state’s congressional delegation sent a letter on Wednesday urging the State Department to act swiftly in expediting the visa process.

A backlog and delays in processing visas is due to policy set in June 2020 by former President Donald Trump who issued a stoppage of most visas and restricted foreign travel during the pandemic. The visas are used by exchange programs, such as the J-1 BridgeUSA program, and bring over 300,000 foreign student workers to the United States as part of a cultural exchange.

President Joe Biden did not renew the Trump policy, which expired on March 31, opening the door to the potential influx of foreign workers. Rhode Island employs about 950 foreign workers via the J-1 Visa program as temporary, seasonal employees during the summer season.

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Due to employer demand, the Biden administration approved an increase Tuesday in the number of seasonal workers allowed in the country this year, authorizing an additional 22,000 foreign visa workers for the H2-B temporary worker program on top of the annual limit of 66,000 set by the U.S. Congress.

However, despite Biden’s intervention, foreign workers and their sponsors are in scramble mode trying to undo the backlog the Trump policy created with the J-1 Visa program, so cultural exchange can operate again.

Bill Penn, chairman of the board for the International Student Center at the Harbor Church on Block Island, said time is of the essence, as the students typically arrive on the island in late May and early June. Penn said 270 of the J-1 Visa students visited the island in 2019, but only half a dozen made it last summer.

Penn said in preparation for the 2021 summer season island businesses are seeking local hires in case students can’t acquire visas. “They don’t know if the students are going to get here,” he said, noting that businesses are also finding it difficult to find local help.

“It’s not only Block Island,” said Penn. “Newport uses J-1 Visa students as well. A lot of resorts across the country rely on these students.”

Erin Donovan-Boyle, executive director of the Greater Newport Chamber of Commerce, said the J-1 Visa issue is creating a “big problem” for businesses in the Newport region.

“We have so many open positions in the region especially for seasonal work that are going unfilled,” said Donovan-Boyle. “Employers are having great difficulty in getting applicants for open positions and there seems to be apprehension for people to re-enter the labor force for a number of reasons. Adding the lack of foreign workers to the shortage is going to be detrimental to the ability of local businesses to serve consumer demand and will absolutely impact service.”

Marisa Martin, managing director of Michigan-based Dynamic Global Exchange, a State Department endorsed sponsor of J-1 Visa workers, said “What we’re looking at, as a sponsor of the J-1 Visa program, is for them to get under way and operating at pre-pandemic levels, which has not happened yet.”

Martin said her firm has urged the State Department to aid with its goal of getting the embassies open and operating. “The goal is to get all of the embassies open and resume regular immigrant and non-immigrant visa processing,” she said, noting that the State Department has jurisdiction over embassy operations.

“Every embassy seems to be opening at different times and in different ways based on what is going on with the pandemic,” said Martin.

Martin said that COVID-related policies have created a conundrum, but her firm is hopeful that the program will operate as it did prior to the pandemic.

“Our focus is to have students be able to come to the United States this summer and participate in these important cultural exchange programs,” said Martin. “It’s such an important program.”

Julie Fuller, general manager of The National Hotel on Block Island, said she has worked with Dynamic Global Exchange for many years.

“It’s devastating for the kids and for Dynamic Global Exchange, as a business,” she said. “I enjoy having the kids here. They are typically hard workers. It’s great to have people on the island who are from all over the world.”

Fuller said her hotel is employing four J-1 Visa workers this summer season since she retains most of her staff year to year. She said the hotel has been notified of the workers’ arrival dates, but she does not know if they have secured visas.

In order to combat the visa issue, Lars Trodson, executive director of the Block Island Chamber of Commerce, drafted a letter with Penn that was sent to Rhode Island’s federal officials, calling for assistance from the State Department. Block Island businesses employ about 300 to 400 foreign workers in total at hotels, restaurants and shops during its busy summer tourism season.

In its April 9 letter, the Chamber requested guidance from officials in urging the embassies and consulates to open appointments for visa applicants. The letter stressed that time is crucial in providing visas to the workers.

Sen. Jack Reed, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, and Rep. James Langevin and Rep. David Cicilline, sent a letter on Wednesday on behalf of Trodson asking the State Department to start processing J-1 visa applications as soon as possible, allocating sufficient resources to ensure they are reviewed in a timely manner.

Whitehouse said, “I’ve heard from owners of local tourism-related businesses who are concerned about the slow pace of J-1 Visa approvals as the busy summer season approaches. I’m urging the State Department to provide additional support to individual consulates so the visas can be approved safely and promptly.”

Cassius Shuman is a PBN staff writer. Email him at Shuman@PBN.com.

Updated to include details on the letter sent by the R.I. Delegation to the Department of State.

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