MS. REBECCA SHEIR
Welcome back to "Metro Connection." I'm Rebecca Sheir and today we're talking about visitors. Each year, the Eastern shore of Maryland and the coast Delaware draw millions of visitors. Hoards of people who come to kick back on the beach, splash around in the ocean, general, you know, enjoy a little R&R.
MS. REBECCA SHEIR
But there's another set of visitors you'll find flocking to the beaches each year from all over the globe, foreign workers. Tourism officials and people in the hospitality industry have called foreign workers the vital cog in the wheel of the industry for decades. And now the federal government has created a pilot program to help out foreign students who come to the States for jobs.
MS. REBECCA SHEIR
We'll find out more in a new segment we're calling, "On The Coast." Where WAMU's coastal reporter, Bryan Russo, fills us in on the latest and greatest in and around Ocean City, Maryland. And Bryan joins us now from Ocean City. Hey, there, Bryan, welcome to "Metro Connection."
MR. BRYAN RUSSO
Thanks, Rebecca. It's nice to be back on the program.
So tell me about this federal pilot program? From what I understand, it has to do with the visas these foreign students have to get in order to come to the U.S.?
That's right, Rebecca. Foreign students who want to come to the United States will now have to secure a job and a place to stay before they're granted a visa to come to this country. So if all 3500 foreign kids that lived in Ocean City last summer want to come back, they will have to get a job and a room before they get on a plane.
Okay. But isn't that kind of, I don't know, wouldn't that be the prudent thing to do anyway, I mean, before you travel thousands of miles from home, wouldn't you want to have a job lined up, a place to stay, stuff like that? I mean, how did most people handle stuff like this before this new program existed?
Well, a lot of students did it that way is someone through travel companies, like the one that Anne Marie Conostabli works for in Ocean City called CETUSA or the Council for Educational Travel in the United States. I sat down with her earlier this week and she was telling me that not too long ago, probably like a few years back, right around May 1st, every year there would be hundreds of foreign students basically walking up and down Coastal Highway here in Ocean City with their suitcases in hand trying to find a job and a place to stay for the summer. But she thinks this new pilot program is going to improve things immensely.
MS. ANNE MARIE CONOSTABLI
I think they'll be elated to know that they're coming here and they don’t have to struggle walking the streets and looking for work. It will be much easier for them to have an accommodation already set up for them.
But what about the young people who came all this way and couldn't find a job, couldn't find a place to stay?
Well, back when there were a lot of jobs they would just keep going door to door until something opened up. The embassies usually gave them about two-week grace period before they were sent home. But now some people think that this pilot program is a result of those aforementioned problems, coupled with the rising unemployment rates here in Worcester County. It's gotten as high as 14 percent in recent months. So the thought is that there's going to be a lot more people vying for the available summer positions.
Okay. And speaking of those positions, what kind of jobs are we talking about here?
Well, see, the foreign students historically do the jobs that American college kids don't care to do. So we're talking housekeeping in the hotels, fast food joints, dishwashers in restaurants and many of them work at the two big amusement parks down here.
That would be, what, Jolly Roger and Trimper Amusements, yes?
That's right. So that's why when you're walking on the boardwalk and you pass by one of those dollar games where you win the oversized stuffed animals, usually the person that's taking your money or giving you the prize is from Eastern Europe or Ireland or even Russia.
But the dirty little secret around Ocean City for years was that foreign kids would literally pack themselves into very tiny and often deplorable apartments and they would be forces to pay a ton of money to what basically amounted to slumlords in order to stay there. I've heard horror stories where 15 and 16 kids shared a small two-bedroom place with bunk beds and they essentially had to sleep in shifts.
15 and 16 kids wow. Is anything being done to curtail this sort of thing?
Well, you'll be happy to hear that it's not nearly as prevalent as it was several years ago and that's thanks largely to organizations like CETUSA, who make sure that every one of the foreign students they place has a job and a clean place to stay while they're in Ocean City. And they even get the authorities or the city involved if something goes seriously awry.
Now, it is notable that some larger restaurants like Phillip's Crab House or even Jolly Roger amusements have taken it upon themselves to provide housing for these students as well. So it has gotten much better in the past five years.
Good to know. But going back to the visas, though. There are different types of visas, right? Aren't there certain student visas that don't allow you to work in this country?
That's a great point, Rebecca, because some people believe there's another reason that this pilot program was created. See, there's two types of student visas. The J1 visa where students can travel and work in this country for a certain amount of time. And then there are F1 visas, which only prevent foreign students to study in this country.
But I was told an influx of F1 visa holders were arriving in Ocean City a few weeks earlier than the J1 students in the past few years and essentially they were taking all the jobs because employers weren't checking for visas. They were just filling spots in their roster for the busy season. And it's kind of a big gamble, as Anne Marie explained.
Each, you know, employer should verify those with the government before they actually hire a student because there's steep fees for people who caught hiring an illegal student.
Well, here's a question for you, we've been talking about the pros of the new program, right? But on the other side of the coin, do you think this new legislation might stop young people from making the trip to the beach for the summer.
Well, I asked Anne Marie that question and the short answer is, yes, there will be fewer kids who are going to make this trip because there just aren't enough jobs to meet the demands. For instance, Anne Marie told me that 20,000 Russian students came to the United States last year.
And this year it might end up being about half of that. But I think the thing to remember here, Rebecca, is that for the kids who end up in Ocean City this summer this new legislation could make their summer job in America be something they finally remember rather than something they just want to see end as quickly as possible.
Well, Bryan Russo, thanks so much for coming on the show today.
Thanks for having me. It's always a pleasure.
Bryan Russo is WAMU's coastal reporter. He's also the host of "Coastal Connection," which you can hear Fridays at noon and 8:00 p.m. on 88.3 Ocean City. For more information visit our website, metroconnection.org.
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