Can Dems Use Visa Storm to Defeat Popular Maryland Governor?

Can Dems Use Visa Storm to Defeat Popular Maryland Governor?

Tourists walk the boardwalk in Ocean City, Maryland

SourceJim Watson/Getty

Why you should care

Worker visa concerns could cripple Maryland’s economy — and rock its incumbent governor. 

The boardwalk in Ocean City is filled with sunburned wallets lined up for dipped cones and greasy buckets of fries, served by Thrashers employees visibly miserable in the sweltering heat. Ferris wheels and teensy roller-coasters dot the skyline with cheery screams as attendants purchase tickets from the Trimper’s Ride and Amusements stands. The night is filled by the young and restless, who pay $40 covers to eat, drink, dance and dine while waiters serve them in ocean-water seating. By 3 a.m., the engine fueling Maryland’s summer economy hums to a close — and a downpour begins. It’s a fitting portent.

Tourism here brings the state nearly 2 million visitors and $1.4 billion in sales each year — all of which is now threatened by a proposed immigration crackdown that could sideline the roughly 4,000 foreign workers who come here to work each summer. Such fears erupted last fall, when news reports suggested President Donald Trump plans to reduce the J-1 visa exchange program as an extension of his “Buy American, Hire American” executive order, which had already cut down other work visa programs. That concern was felt beyond Maryland, from the Wisconsin Dells Waterpark Capital of the World to the slopes of Colorado ski resorts, among hundreds of businesses that rely on the more than 100,000 international summer workers who fill temporary jobs few Americans want. But in Maryland, it has sparked political consequences too. In a heated election year, Democrats are trying to tie popular Republican incumbent Gov. Larry Hogan to Trump’s immigration policies and their potential economic fallout.

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Maryland Governor Larry Hogan addresses supporters in Annapolis.

Source Pete Marovich For The Washington Post/Getty

I find it very difficult to operate without them.

Brooks Trimper, Trimper’s Ride and Amusements, Ocean City

Just months before Trump’s election, Hogan was at Ocean City to award Trimper’s Rides and Amusements a state heritage award after it was recognized as the oldest amusement park in the nation continuously owned by the same family. Founded in 1893, the day-to-day management is now run by Brooks Trimper — and staffed with around 170 J-1 visa students, mostly stemming from Eastern European nations such as Romania and Bulgaria. Many American high schoolers can’t work the jobs because the minimum age to operate the rides is 18; older students often return to college in mid-August, before the season has ended.

“I find it very difficult to operate without them,” Trimper says.

As other Maryland hotels, restaurants and event companies voiced their concerns, Hogan has sent letters defending J-1 and H-2B visas to Trump’s secretaries of state, labor and homeland security. Still, Democrats argue that Hogan — a successful real estate businessman who often touts polls of him having the second-highest favorability ratings of any U.S. governorhasn’t done enough to oppose the real estate mogul turned president operating just over the Maryland border at 1800 Pennsylvania Avenue.

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Ben Jealous, who is running for governor of Maryland, gives a thumbs-up.

Source Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post/Getty

“You’re saying you’re one of the most popular governors in the country, and all you could do against Donald Trump is write a letter? That’s pretty weak,” says Kevin Harris, press secretary for Ben Jealous, the former NAACP director running for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. “On a number of issues relating to what’s happening in Washington, his response has been, ‘That’s not my job,’” argues another candidate, Krish Vignarajah, a former policy director for then–First Lady Michelle Obama and subsequently an adviser at the State Department under Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. She says she would use that Washington experience to more meaningfully safeguard the visa program. “You can’t all of a sudden start tuning in and hope your voice is heard,” she says.

Hogan’s ties to any J-1 visa scale-back plans are certainly tenuous. He has “answered whenever we called,” says Trimper, adding that fears over the visa program have ramped up in the last four years, dating back to before the Trump administration. If Hogan’s only sin is belonging to the same party as the president, then the Republican will surely point to ways he has departed from Trumpian policy, although he did not reply to requests for comment. Hogan did not endorse Trump in 2016. Meanwhile, businesses in Ocean City appear to have received the full allotment of workers they needed so far this year, perhaps making visa concerns a tad premature.

But the Maryland coast has already felt the shortfall from other aspects of Trump’s immigration policy. The H-2B visa program, for seasonal workers in non-agricultural jobs, was awarded in a lottery this season as opposed to a first-come, first-served policy in previous years, leading to nearly half the crab houses in Maryland reportedly complaining they had no workers to pick crab meat. Even though the J-1 program hasn’t been hampered yet, Trump promised from his campaign website to replace it with “a jobs program for inner-city youth.” Concerns of it entering Trump’s crosshairs has led to a cooling in interest from foreign students. Overseas job fairs that used to host more than 200 people in a room now see only 50, says Trimper, and applicants are dwindling, with workers perhaps afraid they will pay for the visa only to have it yanked later.

It doesn’t help that domestic critics of the program — which also covers au pairs, physicians and professors — complain those jobs could go to Americans instead. The charge is unfounded in his case, though, Trimper argues, insisting that a blanket policy to remove J-1 visas would be a mistake: “Hospitals that are bringing over these people for two-year visas are just taking jobs of our students coming out with medical degrees. I don’t like it when we’re lumped into those same conversations,” he says.

At its heart, the program is meant as much as a cultural exchange as a supplement to labor shortages — one with the potential to turn visa holders into ambassadors of American goodwill worldwide. “They not only share our culture but go home with good stories about Americans,” Trimper says. “Never more in the history of our country have we needed that.”

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