Potential Trump visa cuts feared by some N.H. summer camps

Monitor staff
Saturday, September 09, 2017

At YMCA Camp Coniston, internationalism is part of the fabric. Each summer, the Croydon overnight camp’s contingency of foreign counselors – ranging from Mexico, Hungary, Ireland, Poland and Scotland – run the gamut of jobs.

Some lead children in cabins; others work shifts on the kitchen or maintenance crew. It’s an arrangement common to New Hampshire summer camps, which number more than 100 across the state.

But it’s an arrangement camp directors fear could be in peril. Administration officials for President Donald Trump are weighing major plans to the J-1 visa program under the U.S. State Department, which could include the elimination of the category for international camp counselors altogether, according to an Aug. 27 Wall Street Journal report.

The move would effectively extinguish a program that provides both financial and cultural benefits for the camps, directors say.

The White House has not confirmed its plans on the record. But with the summer season concluded, the American Camp Association has mobilized a defense, circulating to its members online letters to the White House and Congress opposing the reported move.

By end of day Thursday, more than 21,000 people had sent more than 85,000 messages, according to figures provided by the association.

The J-1 program, introduced in 1961, provides short-term visas for cultural exchanges. Recipients of the program are split into specific categories, including visiting scholars, au pair participants and camp counselors, and are required to return to their countries after a targeted time period.

American summer camps have availed themselves of the program for decades, with many saying that the inclusion of foreign staff members enrich the experience for children.

But in an April executive order tiled “Buy American and Hire American,” President Trump created an inter-agency study commission to examine major reforms to the J-1 visa program, within an overall review of immigration policy.

Now, the camp counselor program is one of five categories under J-1 recommended for elimination by a White House directive sent to the State Department, according to the Journal report, which cited anonymous administration officials.

For John Pilley, executive director of YMCA Camp Coniston for 18 years, the counselors are a boon on many levels. With differing schedules, the counselors are more available to help out in off-season months when many American counselors return to college, he said.

But more importantly, he said, the international staff provide value to the camp’s programming, adding a cultural depth to the staff that children enjoy. New food and songs are shared; the staff give out new stories and lessons.

The experience, he said, fits the overall missions the camps strive for.

“Camp should be a cultural exchange,” he said. “Without (people) from around the world, it makes it much more difficult to have viewpoints that are representative.”

Nat Crame, director at William Lawrence Camp in Tuftonboro, agreed. International staff have made up about a quarter of the camp’s 50 staff members for at least the past 20 years, he said.

“It’s such an eye-opener for kids in terms of the bigger world out there,” he said. “It was huge for me when I became a camp director – I’m not a big traveler of the world, but to learn a lot about these guys was really cool.”

Both Pilley and Crame said that elimination of the program would make a significant dent financially; the American Camp Association claimed the move could shutter camps and lead to the loss of thousands of American jobs.

But advocates for tighter immigration laws see the situation differently.

Jessica Vaughan, director of policy at the Center for Immigration Studies, a right-leaning national think tank, argued that while the cultural exchange is a benefit summer camps, more stringent rules need to be set in place to prevent abuse.

At present, recipients of the J-1 visas do not have to check in with U.S. government officials to verify that they are arriving and leaving the country when they’re supposed to, Vaughan said. Employers are required to verify that the foreign employees arrive, but few other checks are carried out, she said.

Without such safeguards, the system is liable to be used by young people to overstay their visas.

“I don’t have a problem with an exchange program for camp counselors if everyone is adhering to the rules of the program,” she said. “The problem is that not everyone is.”

Vaughan said that the J-1 program would be better managed by the U.S. Department of Labor, rather than the State Department, which she said is ill-equipped to carry out proper checks. And she supports shutting down the program until a better procedure can be implemented.

“I don’t think there would be any great economic loss to the U.S if (the programs) were discontinued,” she added.

Despite the camp backlash, the future status of the J-1 program remains unclear.

Addressing the Journal report, a State Department spokesman referred questions to the White House, which he said has the power to make decisions. The White House did not answer queries last week on the status of the program.

But Pilley warned that eliminating the visa program would cut to the heart of summer camp operations.

“You’re actually talking about changing part of the secret sauce that has historically made camps what they are,” he said. “Why do we want to change that?”