To Amy Owens, the State Department program that allows babysitters to come from overseas and work for little more than room and board is a working mom’s lifesaver. To her 23-year-old German au pair, Ann Kathrin Lentsch, the program is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the United States through the eyes of an American family.
Now Owens fears that both those benefits may be in jeopardy after receiving an email last week from Interexchange, the agency that sponsors her au pair, saying that the “Trump administration is planning to eliminate the Au Pair Program.”
“I don’t know what we would do,” the mother of three from Alexandria said. “It’s such a valuable program to us.”
The State Department declined to answer questions about the future of the program but said in a statement: “We continue to implement J-1 visa programs at the same levels we have for the past few years. There has been no change in our procedures for handling applications for J-1 visas.”
The White House did not respond to requests for comment.
But businesses and families who employ foreign workers on J-1 visas are convinced something is happening, in part because of a May email J-1 sponsors received from G.K. Saba, acting deputy assistant secretary for the State Department’s Private Sector Exchange division. The email warned of “emerging Administration policies and themes” that would put certain J-1 visa programs under sharper scrutiny.
Advocates who have been informed about the situation said some categories of the visa program were being reviewed by a small working group under the White House’s “Buy American and Hire American” executive order. Areas that could be cut include the au pair program, summer workers and camp counselors.
Critics of the J-1 visa program say it provides an easy way for employers to choose inexpensive labor instead of hiring American workers whom they would have to pay higher wages.
In 2016, 19,233 au pairs, 101,061 summer workers and 22,994 camp counselors worked in the United States on J-1 visas, according to State Department data.
“It’s been used by businesses to basically bring in cheap foreign labor to fill temporary jobs,” said Chris Chmielenski, director of content and activism at NumbersUSA, which opposes J-1 visas in their current form.
Ian Band, an immigration attorney at Hunton & Williams who has seen the email from Saba, said his clients who sponsor J-1 recipients are concerned because this is the time of year they begin to plan for next season.
“I think it’s part of a broader anti-immigrant view that plays to the president’s base,” Band said. “It’s easy to pitch it as saving U.S. jobs.”
As a candidate, President Trump’s immigration revision plan pledged to eliminate the J-1 visa program and replace it with what his campaign website described as a “jobs program for inner city youth.”
But advocates for the program say jobs that go to J-1 visa workers, particularly those employed at seasonal destinations such as beach towns, are ones that could not easily be filled by U.S. workers. They also say J-1 visa holders introduce American communities to foreign cultures and languages in a valuable and enriching way.
"For young people, it's great to get to come to a new country and learn about a different family and a different culture," said Lentsch, the au pair for Owens's family.
In Ocean City, where the population explodes in summer months, 4,000 foreign workers are employed up and down the boardwalk, many on J-1 visas. Melanie Pursel, executive director of the Ocean City Chamber of Commerce, said there aren’t enough young people in proximity to fill all the jobs needed.
Moreover, Pursel said, most U.S. workers who take these jobs are students who can’t work during the “shoulder seasons,” late spring and late summer, because they have to be in school. Summer tourism allows these businesses to stay afloat year-round, so having foreign workers actually protects the jobs of full-time U.S. employees, she said.
After word spread about possible cuts in the J-1 visa program, Pursel sent a survey to area businesses. Preliminary responses show that nearly 93 percent said their businesses would be negatively affected if they could not hire workers on J-1 visas, and 95 percent said they first look to employ qualified American workers.
Summer camps are also sounding the alarm. The Foundation for Jewish Camp, whose more than 300 camps employ counselors from Israel and other countries, sent a letter to Trump urging him to preserve J-1 visas.
"Any threat to these programs and their educational impact could cause ripples across our entire faith community and deeply impact the development of future Jewish faith leaders and their connection to Israel," the letter said.
The foundation wrote that there are not enough American students to fill all the jobs at summer camps, especially those in rural areas.
The J-1 visa program hasn’t been studied as closely as other foreign worker programs, so data is limited, Chmielenski said.
But he noted that criticism of the program has come from different parts of the political spectrum: In 2013, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said the program was intended to be for cultural understanding but is now “a low-wage jobs program” where companies can “replace young American workers with cheaper labor from overseas.”
Still, there is bipartisan support on Capitol Hill for keeping the program intact. Lawmakers from the House and Senate wrote to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson this summer espousing the benefits of J-1 visas for diplomatic purposes.
“At a time when the values of the United States are misrepresented in many parts of the world, this program plays an ever-increasing role to correct those impressions of America, expose international students to our culture and values, and give Americans the opportunity to learn about corners of the world to which they may never travel,” said the letter from 33 House members, both Democratic and Republican.
Ilir Zherka, executive director of the Alliance for International Exchange, an umbrella organization for sponsors of J-1 visa programs, said Congress has received 100,000 letters urging it to protect the program.
And it may already be working. On Thursday, the Senate Appropriations Committee added an amendment to a State Department spending bill mandating that any changes to the J-1 program must be transparent.