J-1 exchange students could be an endangered species in Wisconsin Dells if a presidential executive order includes the program that brings thousands of those students to work in the area every year.
President Donald Trump’s “Buy American, Hire American" order, signed in April, aims to reduce visas for foreign workers, and the reduction could include thousands of international students who comprise a vital workforce for the Dells’ tourism economy.
It's not clear whether the order will affect the J-1 Exchange Visitor Program, which accounts for more than 4,500 local workers every year in the Dells-Delton area and its countless tourism businesses.
An Aug. 27 story in the Wall Street Journal has raised fears among tourism and government officials in Wisconsin Dells and their counterparts in tourism-related areas across the country.
While the Trump administration’s plans for the J-1 program have not been made public, the Wall Street Journal story quoted an immigration “policy studies” official as indicating “the administration has concerns” about the visas that allow for guest workers.
“There have been threats to the program for a while,” said Stacie Tollaksen, a Dells-area J-1 advocate and regional account manager for Intrax, one of numerous student sponsorship organizations that bring J-1 students to the area. “The Wall Street Journal article put everyone on notice again.”
The potential threat to tourism labor has mobilized local tourism and government officials in recent weeks.
An Aug. 18 resolution passed by Wisconsin Dells’ Common Council supports the local J-1 program and noted “a growing threat to the continuance of the J-1 program” that “has been looming at the federal government level and threatens to have a negative effect not only on the people involved in the successful example of the J-1 program in our community, but also on the $1.3 billion economic impact to the Wisconsin Dells area and the State of Wisconsin.”
The goal of the resolution, Wisconsin Dells Mayor Brian Landers siad, is to make the city’s “fears known to state and federal lawmakers.”
“We need that influx of J-1s,” Landers said a few days after the resolution’s passage. “I don’t view it as taking away American jobs. I can’t speak to whether that occurs in other communities, but here in the Dells, we have 5,000 in our population and we need 20,000 workers to do what we do here.”
More than 4,500 international students travel to the Dells each year to help fill many of the roles required to operate the numerous resorts, attractions and restaurants comprising the state’s top tourism destination.
Lake Delton Village Board Trustee and Kalahari Resort executive Cary Brandt indicated a similar position by the board on which he serves.
“The village of Lake Delton and the community at large are 100 percent in full support of the J-1 student program,” Brandt said. “It’s a necessity for us and a great experience for (the participating J-1 students) and we embrace it wholeheartedly.”
The support is evident, Brandt said, in the village’s ever-growing number of dormitory facilities built especially for student workers, both on-site at employers such as Wilderness Resort in Lake Delton and Chula Vista Resort in Wisconsin Dells, as well as the recently expanded Hiawatha Residence Hall in Lake Delton.
“We’re determined to make sure every aspect of a student’s visit to the area is a plus,” Brand said. “We made Hiawatha a one-way road, upgraded the sidewalks and added specialized lighting just so the kids would have a safe travel path to the Parkway. You won’t find another side street like that.”
Criticism of foreign worker visa programs is bipartisan, according to the Wall Street Journal story, but support of the J-1 program also crosses party lines. A letter from 17 United States senators — including Wisconsin Sens. Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat, and Ron Johnson, a Republican — was sent Aug. 8 to U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
“We urge you to work with stakeholders in the (J-1 work travel program) community to continue to strengthen this important and successful cultural exchange program that enriches and supports communities across the United States,” the letter states.