With visa program in jeopardy, local employers express staffing concerns

North Fork business owners may be in trouble next summer if the J-1 work visa program is discontinued.

The J-1 program allows students from foreign countries to come to the United States during the summer to work. They are legal workers who pay taxes and provide help to employers who request them.

There has been speculation that the program might be cut under President Donald Trump’s administration, but nothing has been officially announced.

Hellenic Snack Bar and Restaurant owner George Giannaris posted a video on Youtube and Facebook asking people to write to their local politicians to try and prevent a shutdown of the J-1 work visa program, which he relies on for help during the summer and fall tourist seasons. Years ago he had no problem hiring locally, he said, but recently he can barely find enough employees in the area.

“This program was like an answered prayer,” said Mr. Giannaris, who has 11 student visa holders on his staff this summer. “Years ago, we had no problem finding people to work. That’s not the case anymore.”

Mr. Giannaris used to turn away over 30 U.S. citizens for waitstaff positions at his restaurant, but this year he was only able to hire four. He said he’d rather hire U.S. citizens because it’s easier for him, but that’s just not an option anymore. This is the second year Mr. Giannaris has participated in the J-1 program.

Luka Koprivica came from Montenegro to work at the Hellenic Snack Bar for his second summer.

“It is a once in a lifetime opportunity,” he said. “In Europe you cannot earn enough money to travel through America, so for me this is the best thing to happen.”

In other immigration news, President Trump announced this week that the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program would be terminated. DACA was passed by former President Barack Obama and was designed to help those who were brought into the country illegally as children by allowing them access to college and providing amnesty.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in the announcement that the program, which started in 2012, “denied jobs to hundreds of thousands of Americans by allowing those same illegal aliens to take those jobs.” He did not elaborate with further evidence.

Mr. Koprivica, 22, has used the opportunity to work as much as he can in order to pay for trips to New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles and around Long Island.

“I would feel sorry for the next generation that they’re not able to go on this program,” he said. “It’s also a good thing for Americans.

“I think Americans are also happy to meet our culture,” Mr. Koprivica added. “We share a little bit of our culture with every table. They ask me about my country.”

About 185 student visa holders are working this summer in Riverhead and Southold, according the state department. Splish Splash Water Park in Calverton has employed anywhere from 50 to 90 students through the J-1 program over the last 15 years.

“It would have a huge effect on us,” assistant general manager Deborah Zak said. “We have depended on the J-1 program. It helps us stay open in the shoulder season.”

Ms. Zak added that if the program were to be cut, operational hours, attraction availability and food service options at Splish Splash would be changed dramatically because the park relies on these students during the first few weeks after Memorial Day, when the park opens, and in the weeks after college students return to school.

Mr. Giannaris said he thinks the program is very beneficial for all, because it helps the students expand their horizons and gives them opportunities they would not have in their own country.

Congressman Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) said that no action has been taken on this program yet and any changes would have to be passed by Congress.

“There is no indication that anything is changing to the J-1 program anytime soon,” Mr. Zeldin said. “I recognize the role J-1 and other visa programs play in supporting Long Island’s small businesses, farmers and the tourist economy, in addition to research institutions like BNL and Stony Brook University.”

“When I’m done with them at the end of the summer, the language barrier is cut in half,” Mr. Giannaris said. “I’m hoping people reach out to their congressman.”

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Photo: This is the second summer in a row Luka Koprivica has come from Montenegro on the J-1 visa program to work at Hellenic Snack Bar in East Marion. (Credit: Rachel Siford)