Editorial: J-1 visa program is vital for local businesses

Immigration to America is one of the most contentious political issues of the day. Who gets to come here and work and who gets to stay has been hotly and emotionally debated for years, even more so this week with the president’s decision to end the so-called Dreamers program that allowed some 800,000 young people who entered the country without proper paperwork to stay.

One aspect of the immigration debate that businesses nationally and here on the North Fork have largely embraced is the J-1 visa program. This program allows students from a number of foreign countries to legally enter the United States over the summer to work.

On a number of levels, J-1 is an immigration success story. The students who come here pay taxes into the system, which is only fair to other workers and good for the economy, and they provide employers with much-needed help in the late spring before schools are out and later in the summer when students return to college campuses.

Locally, they fill a big need in tourist-related businesses. There are about 185 student visa holders working this summer in Riverhead and Southold. Those who arrive with the J-1 visa in hand wait tables at a multitude of restaurants, work behind the counter at businesses that are busier in the summer and generally fill the gaps created when U.S. teenagers and others head back to their schools.

Along with wider discussions of legal and undocumented immigration, there has been some talk in Washington, D.C., of eliminating the J-1 program. While, so far, there have been no official announcements about the future of the program, just the talk that these foreign students might no longer be able to come to the East End and fill hundreds of critical jobs has frightened some business owners.

Interviews with business owners show important reasons to keep the program: the businesses need these foreign students because local people have not applied for these jobs in any great numbers; the consumers who meet the students while, say, dining at a local restaurant enjoy interacting with them; and the foreign students themselves say their summers here provide wonderful experiences and a chance to work on their language skills.

Consider the case of just one local business, the Hellenic Snack Bar and Restaurant in Greenport. Owner George Giannaris has posted a video asking people to write their local politicians in support of continuing the J-1 program. He said in an interview that, years ago, he could easily hire locally for jobs such as servers and kitchen staff. In recent years, however, that has not been true.

“This program is like an answered prayer,” Mr. Giannaris said. He currently employs 11 student visa holders in his restaurant. He said he only hired four locals for waitstaff positions this year.

Mr. Giannaris makes it clear that he’d prefer to fill his positions with local people because it’s easier, with far less paperwork. But with few locals applying, that is not an option. He has to have the J-1 program to keep his business going.

In speaking with one of these students working at the Hellenic this summer, it certainly appears that the visa program is a win-win all around.

Luka Koprivica, 22, is from Montenegro. He called his time on the North Fork a “once in a lifetime opportunity,” adding that in his home country he could not earn enough to fill his desire to travel through America. So far, he has taken trips to New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles.

Congressman Lee Zeldin, who represents the East End, said he believes nothing will change with the J-1 visa program anytime soon and, besides, such a change would have to be reviewed by Congress. He said he fully understands how so many eastern Long Island businesses that are part of the tourist economy depend on these foreign students.

J-1 works and should be continued.