Proposal to End International Student Visa Program Worries Flathead Businesses

Xanterra, Whitefish Mountain Resort rely heavily on international students to staff during busy summer season

By Justin Franz
Xanterra Parks and Resorts, Inc. employees stock merchandise at the facility in Columbia Falls. Beacon File Photo

Every summer, more than 300,000 international students from 200 different countries come to the United States through the J-1 Visa Exchange Visitor Program to learn English and experience America while adding to the labor pool. In 2016, there were more than 2,700 exchange students in Montana alone, working as camp counselors, housekeepers, cooks and even physicians.

But the Trump administration has recently suggested that it would end the popular program in an effort to “protect the interests of U.S. workers” as part of the Buy American, Hire American Executive Order issued earlier this year.

Eliminating the program could have big impacts in the Flathead Valley, according to local business officials.

Marc Ducharme, general manager for Xanterra Parks & Resorts’ Glacier National Park operations, said about a quarter of the approximately 750 seasonal employees working at the lodges and restaurants in the park are international students through the J-1 program. Ducharme said the students are critical to helping Xanterra fill its ranks during the busy tourist season.

Ducharme said losing the program would be “catastrophic” for Xanterra and that they would likely have to reduce services within Glacier National Park. He said Xanterra is actively lobbying to save the exchange program.

“I’m perplexed as to why someone would want to get rid of this program,” he said. “The kids are able to learn about America and we’re able to learn about their cultures. Programs like this help bring us all a little bit closer.”

This summer, Whitefish Mountain Resort hired about 20 international students to help run lifts and work housekeeping and restaurant jobs. The resort usually hires about 100 seasonal employees, and spokesperson Riley Polumbus said the international students play a critical role because they can stay through August into September, whereas American college students often have to leave earlier for school.

“As we continue to grow our summer business, we have to have more seasonal employees, and losing this visa program would make it tough for us to find enough people in the summer,” she said.

Nikki Thompson, assistant manager at Markus Foods in Whitefish, said her store had five international students, and without them, it would have been difficult to find enough summer employees. Thompson said as the Flathead Valley grows and the summer tourism season gets longer, the number of people available to work isn’t keeping pace with the demand.

But the benefits of the program go far beyond helping businesses in the summer, according to Ilir Zherka, executive director of the Alliance for International Exchange. Zherka said the United States ratcheted up its exchange programs following World War II to encourage better international relations. Zherka said the J-1 visa program has since received broad bipartisan support from both Democratic and Republican presidents.

“This program is a central part of America’s foreign policy strategy and it makes us more secure,” he said. “This program has huge benefits for the United States.”

Zherka said any effort to dismantle the J-1 program is “misguided and uninformed.”

The Alliance for International Exchange estimates that the summer work travel visa program contributes more than $500 million to the American economy every year through program fees, travel, housing and entertainment.

“It would be nearly impossible for us to rely entirely on domestic help during the summer,” Ducharme said. “The pool of applicants is just not big enough in the United States.”

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