Doug Hare EBS Staff

BIG SKY – An executive order issued by the Donald Trump administration in April called “Buy American, Hire American,” signaled its intention to curtail or eliminate various visa programs for foreign workers. This was alarming to many resort towns and national parks which rely heavily on the J-1 Visa Exchange Program to staff positions during peak seasons.

Overseen by the U.S. State Department, the J-1 Visa is a non-immigrant visa category that offers approved foreigners from over 200 countries the opportunity to work in the U.S. as part of a cultural work or study exchange program. Founded in 1961 during the Dwight Eisenhower presidency, the program was intended to improve relations, mutual understanding, and cultural ties between the U.S. and foreign nations by allowing participants to work or study in the United States for a short period of time.

In late August, the Wall Street Journal reported that, in line with BAHA, senior White House staff are considering “major reductions” to, or the eliminations of certain J-1 programs, including Summer Work Travel, Au Pair, Intern, Trainee and Camp Counselor visas.

The uncertainty over the future over the J-1 program has many employers in towns with tourist-driven economies, and pronounced peak seasons, concerned about being able to operate at full capacity, with some business owners wondering if they would be able to stay open at all.

“We certainly understand the importance of ‘hiring American,’ and we make every effort possible to hire as many people from Bozeman and Big Sky as possible,” said David Mars, general manager at Montage Hotels & Resorts, which operates the Spanish Peaks Mountain Club. “However, the reality is that we simply cannot find enough people to fill the positions. J-1 exchange participants don’t displace American workers, they supplement them.”

During peak seasons at Spanish Peaks Mountain Club, Mars estimated that about a quarter of his employees are J-1 participants. Most of these J-1 Visas fall under the category of work and travel, with a few being Internship J-1s that are hospitality specific. 

Big Sky Chamber of Congress CEO Candace Carr Strauss was also quick to point out the reliance on the J-1 program in seasonal, tourist-driven economies like Big Sky. “As a mountain resort destination, we are highly dependent upon the J-1 Visa Program to provide us upwards of 350 employees annually, who assume vital seasonal roles into late spring and late summer,” she said.

Strauss noted that local businesses’ ability to fully staff would be greatly diminished if they were limited to a domestic labor pool. “It simply doesn’t exist,” she said, noting that recent estimates of the unemployment rate around Bozeman and Big Sky are hovering around 2 percent.

Uncertainty over the future of the cultural exchange program also has J-1 participants concerned over their future prospects to live and work in the United States. 

Raisa Velasquez Acarley, a 25-year-old Peruvian woman who has completed the J-1 program five times and has worked at both Moonlight Basin and Spanish Peaks, said, “It would be more than sad to shut down this program … I’ve met so many kind people from different cultures. To be in a different country, speaking a different language, sometimes working full time for the first time and not living with your parents is an intense mode of learning.”

Acarley pointed out that the cultural exchange goes two ways. “The people we work with sometimes didn’t even know our countries existed,” she said with a smile. “Trump talks about stealing jobs. That’s not the case. Businesses, whether in Snowshoe [West Virginia], Park City [Utah], or Big Sky wouldn’t be able to stay open without an additional means of finding workers. Most Americans are not interested in seasonal jobs in remote locations.”

Each year, approximately 300,000 overseas workers are granted J-1 visas, with about one third of these falling in the categories mentioned above that are slated to be reviewed, reduced or possibly eliminated altogether.

Recently, 17 U.S. senators, including Montana’s Sen. Steve Daines, and 34 members of the House of Representatives, including Rep. Greg Gianforte, have signed letters to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urging him not to make any changes to the J-1 program.

The U.S. Travel Association, in which Visit Big Sky is a stakeholder, recently released a statement that said that while they support protecting American jobs, ending or reducing the J-1 cultural exchange program would be a mistake. The statement also noted: “Travel and tourism businesses, including attractions, parks and hotels will suffer, because they will not be able to serve as many visitors without access to these staffing resources.”