As several cities are allowing businesses to resume their operations to pre-pandemic levels, many employees are being called back to on-site work. Thankfully, schools have been welcoming children for in-person learning for several months now, and parents are hoping to send them to summer camps. Approximately 26 million American children attend summer camps in a “normal” year, and this year there is a pent-up desire and demand.
The President and CEO of the American Camp Association discussed the importance of summer camps in 2021 because “[c]hildren need to regain some of those unpracticed social and emotional competencies, friendship skills and communication skills” they have lost due to the COVID-19. The problem is that many summer camps rely on hiring foreign students in J-1 Work/Travel cultural exchange programs to serve as camp counselors – and this year, for many camps, that is not going well: like other businesses that rely on temporary, seasonal workers, summer camps are having visa troubles.
The first major hurdle was when former President Donald Trump instituted a nonimmigrant visa ban last year that included most types of J-1 visas. That ban was lifted, but the backlogs at the U.S. consulates remain, and visas for camp counselors are not top priority. Some camps fear that they will not be able to open and others will have to cut back on programs – even those serving disabled children.
Exchange students from abroad also fill other seasonal jobs in tourist areas. In a typical year, about 100,000 students travel on a J-1 visa for Work/Travel programs. Exchange visitor programs are meant to “assist in the development of friendly, sympathetic, and peaceful relations between the United States and the other countries of the world.” The foreign students learn about the United States, travel after finishing their work programs, and add to diversity. They “discover America and meet Americans.”
The J-1 exchange programs are sponsored by the Department of State and are diplomatic in nature. Businesses are pressing DOS to create national interest exceptions for J-1 cultural exchange applicants to facilitate their travel to the United States. Senator Jean Shaheen (D. NH) has also been pushing the White House to address the J-1 visa backlog, noting that the program is “critical to fill seasonal jobs . . . like summer camps and lifeguarding.” So, while camp directors make plans to open safely following CDC Guidelines, they may not be able to offer a full slate of programs due to lack of staff.
Last year, camps lost approximately $16 billion in direct revenue. If anything close to that happens again, the economies in areas that rely heavily on camping and tourism may not be able to bounce back.