Reports of possible reductions to international work and travel programs have stoked worries among local hospitality and tourism leaders who hire students through the initiative.
The Wall Street Journal on Aug. 27 reported that President Donald Trump is considering reductions to parts of the U.S. State Department’s J-1 visa program, which allows some young people from other countries to work in the United States legally.
More than 770 international students traveled to Galveston last summer to work through a J-1 visa program, according to the J-1 visa website.
Galveston has had high numbers of workers because of summer job openings in the tourism industry, said Kathleen Mears, a community outreach specialist for Cultural Homestay International, which sponsors some students through the visa program.
“We’re a major destination,” Mears said. “Galveston is very popular.”
The U.S. Department of State has not publicly confirmed that the number of visas issued might be reduced. So far, nothing has changed, said Nathan Arnold, director of media relations for the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
“There has been no change in our procedures for handling applications for J-1 visas,” Arnold said in an email. “We continue to issue J-1 visas following approved guidelines and at the same levels we have for the past few years.”
But rumors of cuts have persisted, just months after Trump issued an executive order to “buy American and hire American,” or to enforce laws that govern the entry of international workers.
Many employers on the island said they have come to rely on the program, however, because they haven’t been able to fill positions locally, especially in the summer’s peak tourism season.
Moody Gardens, an educational conservation and wildlife center, hired 28 J-1 visa workers this summer, marketing and public relations manager Jerri Hamachek said. Moody Gardens wasn’t able to fill those positions with locals after advertising throughout the county and participating in job fairs, she said.
“We definitely had a need,” Hamachek said. “Through our other efforts, we still had those openings.”
Varughese Kuruvilla, the franchise owner of Wingstop, 6202 Broadway on the island, hired two people from the program last summer and one person this summer, he said.
“In the summer months, it’s very hard for us to find enough staff in Galveston,” Kuruvilla said. “For next year, if the program was completely eliminated, it would be difficult to staff. I wouldn’t say impossible, but difficult.”
Steve Cunningham, general manager of Hotel Galvez, The Tremont House, and Harbor House Hotel & Marina, has about 40 foreigners working at the three properties every year, he said.
Even with the foreign workers, the hotels still have open positions, Cunningham said.
“Without them, we would really be in trouble,” Cunningham said. “It’s not because we don’t want to hire local people. They are not there, or they are not qualified to work.”
Not having the J-1 visa program would have made hiring much more difficult for Moody Gardens this summer, Hamachek said.
“Based on what we experienced this summer, we’d have 28 more positions that we would have to fill, and we’d have to find a way to do that,” Hamachek said. “The way we went about it through job fairs and advertising didn’t work.”
The worry reaches the exchange workers, too, said Justin Castillo, from the Philippines. He works at the Hotel Galvez through a J-1 visa and said he might want to return for another stay in the future.
“When I got the news, it was really overwhelming for me,” Castillo said.
Beyond what he’s gained culturally, the program has prepared him to return back home with more skills, Castillo said.
“I believe this will really help me to build myself,” Castillo said. “After this program, I will be more than ready when I get back to the Philippines.”