Cultural exchange programs fear visa cuts from Trump order

Officials who run a popular language and cultural immersion program in the north woods of Minnesota are warning that potential changes in visa rules could make it hard for them to hire enough instructors.

The Minnesota program's alert is part of a larger push by cultural exchange programs nationwide to draw attention to the possible impact of President Donald Trump's "Buy American, Hire American" executive order.

Christine Schulze, executive director of Concordia Language Villages, wrote a letter this week urging alumni and other supporters around the country to contact their congressional representatives and ask them to ensure that international exchange programs are excluded from Trump's order.

The Wall Street Journal reported this week that the Trump administration is considering major reductions in J-1 visas for cultural exchange programs as it implements the executive order.

Trump signed the order in April on a trip to Kenosha, Wisconsin. It's aimed mainly at ensuring that highly skilled technology jobs go to Americans rather than foreigners with H1-B visas who will work for less, and strengthening "buy American" requirements for government purchases. But it may ultimately affect other categories of workers, too, such as foreign college students who take summer jobs in the U.S.

Concordia Language Villages, a program of Concordia College in Moorhead, gathers more than 10,000 people a year from all 50 states and more than 40 countries to camps near Bemidji and other sites in northern Minnesota as either staff or students. That includes nearly 200 people on J-1 visas.

Students, known as "villagers," include young people and adults. Besides seasonal programs at various locations, the program also offers seven year-round, architecturally authentic "villages" near Bemidji that represent cultures speaking Finnish, French, German, Russian, Norwegian, Spanish and Swedish.

"These staff offer language and cultural skills that ensure top quality instruction" in an immersion setting, Schultze said in her letter. "The international staff are vital members of the Concordia Language Villages community and help us provide an incomparable educational opportunity for thousands of young people in the state of Minnesota and across the country on an annual basis."

Concordia Language Villages is making its appeal as part of a broader initiative by the Alliance for International Exchange, a national umbrella group for cultural exchange programs. Schulze said she had met in recent days with alliance staff and member organizations in Washington about their next steps.

The alliance said a number of cultural exchange programs are at risk if the Trump administration curtails privately funded J-1 visa programs, including categories for camp counselors, summer work travel, au pairs and others.

"We believe this is a grave mistake — elimination of these programs would have a negative impact on local communities, employers, and families nationwide, while dramatically weakening our public diplomacy efforts," said Ilir Zherka, executive director of the alliance, in an action alert to its member groups and supporters.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday from The Associated Press. White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told the Wall Street Journal she had "nothing to announce at this time."