(May 2, 2014) Given the volatility of international relations, “status quo” is typically seen as a good thing when it comes to the thousands of foreign students the resort relies upon each summer as temporary workers.
“Usually a big change means something bad has happened,” said Irina Capaldi of visa agency CCI Greenheart. “We like it to stay the way it is for a while.”
In a few short weeks, students will begin arriving under the U.S State Department’s J-1 visa program, which offers young people from overseas to opportunity to experience America while working to pay off their travel costs.
The program was originally conceived in the 1960’s as a tool of diplomacy, giving foreign youth a chance to see all the opportunities the United States has to offer in terms of both jobs and cultural experiences.
Over the last two decades, however, the rapid expansion of the program has led to widespread allegations of abuse – although not necessarily in Ocean City, which the State Department considers to be somewhat of a model area with many visa sponsors and advocacy groups offering trips and activities for foreign student-workers.
Beginning in the summer of the 2012, the State Department began a program of increased oversight on the J-1 system, requiring the exchange agencies which sponsor the students to regularly check in and report on students’ whereabouts and living conditions.
“For probably a year and a half now, the regulations are that the sponsors who bring the students have to vet the job offers and the housing…to show the department of state that it is a legitimate employer and a safe house,” said Anne Marie Conestabile of United Work & Travel.
Conestabile said she expects to sponsor roughly 1,200 students in Ocean City this season. According to State Department data, 4,518 students from 44 countries passed through the resort last summer.
“There’s a heavy emphasis on letting employers, students and anyone else know that this is a diplomacy program for the State Department,” Conestabile said.
The 2012 crackdown saw a major dip in the number of students from the former USSR, which was at the eye of the State Department’s scrutiny. With the current unrest in Russia and the Ukraine, it was feared that those numbers would be even more restricted, but this has not been the case.
“We’ve been seeing more and more students from those countries get their visas, even though we were expecting quite the opposite,” Capaldi said.
Even still, the J-1 population in Ocean City continues to be dominated by those students from Eastern European countries with relatively better relations with the U.S. Romania, Bulgaria, and Moldova, respectively, were last year’s top three contributors.
Fourth was Ireland – the only English-speaking country with a sizeable population in Ocean City. Irish students were extremely common in the resort area in the 1990s, and their numbers have since started to climb back up in the last three years.
However, most visa sponsors seem to agree that the future of the program likely lies in the Far East.
“We have had a very nice influx lately from Asia – China, Hong Kong, Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan,” Conestabile said. “All of those countries are contributing heavily lately.”