Why you should care
Because foreign students do the jobs American students reject.
Each summer they come by the thousands with their hopes, dreams and confounding expectations in matters such as public transportation, access to groceries and the legal drinking age. They are the college kids from Turkey and Thailand, Ukraine and Jamaica and dozens of other nations, who pour into Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin — which fancies itself as the Waterpark Capital of the World — to supervise wave pools and tend slides.
Thanks to President Donald Trump’s emphasis on “America First,” the state department program that facilitates the multinational water park workforce faces an uncertain future. During his run for the White House, Trump repeatedly targeted the J-1 foreign student summer work program, calling it yet another raw deal for American workers — in this case, American teens who Trump claims are losing out on the opportunity to get a great tan while blowing a whistle for money. At one point, candidate Trump, who used international student workers at his own businesses, issued this declaration: “The J-1 visa jobs program for foreign youth will be terminated and replaced with a résumé bank for inner-city youth provided to all corporate subscribers to the J-1 visa program.”
Without the J-1 [foreign student-worker] program, this community would really be in a world of hurt.
Tom Diehl, owner, Tommy Bartlett Ski Show, Wisconsin Dells
Amid the storm of executive orders and policy adjustments from the new administration, the J-1 student work-travel program surprisingly remains unscathed. Once the target of Trump budget cuts, the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, which oversees the program, is operating as usual. Still, J-1-reliant economies like the Dells, where the Main Street industry is tourism, are watching the White House with concern.
Like other rural communities, the Dells struggles to attract young people willing to live and work in the middle of nowhere. Unlike most other small towns, though, this tourist trap on the Wisconsin River draws 4 million visitors annually, which creates a massive need for labor during the seasonal peaks. Summer obviously is the big one, but the birthplace of the indoor water park also lures visitors in droves during the spring and winter school breaks, and even on federal holidays. Local experts place the fluctuating labor force between 13,000 and 15,000 jobs.
International college students — known hereabouts as J-1s — occupy approximately 4,000 of those seasonal positions. Advocates of the program say there’s plenty of work to go around and emphasize the program’s original purpose: a soft-power diplomacy initiative meant to facilitate cultural exchange. “It really is easier for an employer to hire an American,” says Stacy Tollaksen, who once managed human resources for her family’s portfolio of fright-based attractions. She now works for Intrax, a San Francisco–based firm that connects American employers with student employees from overseas. “Talk to employers in the Dells, and they’ll tell you: ‘We never stop hiring here. Even with all the J-1s, if an American walks in and has the skills, they’re hired.’”
In a way, Tom Diehl is the Abraham of the J-1 story in the Dells. Some 20 years ago, the owner of the legendary Tommy Bartlett Ski Show noticed an impending labor shortage and offered to employ a Finnish teen with family ties to Wisconsin. Having hired international water-skiers for his show, Diehl knew the ins and outs of the visa process and saw the J-1 program as a potential solution. The following summer, 78 Finnish college students came to work for Diehl and at Noah’s Ark, the area’s largest water park.
According to Diehl, American college-age job seekers no longer flock to the Dells. Students are entangled in expensive, year-long college-town leases or stuck in summer school. Many pursue internships in fields other than ticket taking and temporary professional sunbathing. As a result, the foreign student-worker program proliferated, and now more than 100 local businesses employ J-1s. “Without the J-1 program,” Diehl says, “this community would really be in a world of hurt.”
Diehl hopes the president realizes the value of the program and leaves it alone. To help get the point across, he and other local business leaders are pressing Sen. Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican who strongly backed Trump during the election. (Johnson’s office did not respond to OZY’s requests for comment.) “We’re heavily involved in educating our legislators about the importance of the J-1 program to Wisconsin’s summer tourism businesses,” Diehl says. “They’re cognizant of it, and they’re supportive. We can’t allow a good program to be decimated.”
Especially given the post-recession business growth in the Dells. Between 2013 and 2017, the J-1 cohort nearly doubled in size to meet demand. But will politicians pee in the pool and ruin the party, so to speak? Tom Diehl says he’s recruited an all-time-low number of J-1s this year, which he attributes “the way we’re perceived in the world — all of the polarization.” As the human resources director for the Wilderness Resort, Shaun Tofson oversees the recruitment and hiring of hundreds of J-1s for the massive water park hotel and golf destination. While she anticipates employing about 530 J-1s this summer, up slightly from 2016, Tofson says the president’s rhetoric makes her job tougher. “We, as well, had a bit more difficulty this year. The students were more hesitant due to the uncertainty around the program.”
But if there’s a community that can handle choppy political waters, it’s the hometown of the Big Kahuna wave pool and Poseidon’s Rage. Mohammad Zghoul is a computer engineering student at Tafila Technical University in Amman, Jordan. This summer, though, he’s trading his Dell for the Dells with the intention of “meeting new people, getting to know a different culture and making friendships with American people. There is some concern,” Zghoul says. “But in the end, it’s an adventure and an exciting journey.”
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