WMBF Investigates: The J-1 student program's impact on the Grand Strand economy

Business owners, students talk importance of J-1 program for Grand Strand economy

NORTH MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) - A student exchange program that has been in the Grand Strand spotlight for years - sometimes for its benefit to the local economy, and sometimes for alleged exploitation of the students involved - could be on the chopping block.

The North Myrtle Beach Chamber of Commerce recently sent a message to all its members, encouraging them to contact senators and representatives about a potential end to the J-1 program.

This comes after The Wall Street Journal and other outlets reported that President Donald Trump's "Buy American and Hire American" executive order designed to protect American jobs could mean an end to the J-1 visa work program that provides much of the summer workforce along the Grand Strand.

The big white house on 40th Avenue North and Dunes in North Myrtle Beach is home to around 16 students from several countries.

Students who have lived there came from Jamaica, China and Turkey. They all were here through the U.S. State Department's J-1 Visa Work program for three months to work and experience American culture.

"I like America; I want to stay here," said J-1 student Taha Atilgan.

The North Myrtle Beach Chamber of Commerce and its members are big supporters of the J-1 Summer Work Travel (SWT) program.

A recent email the group distributed warns that the current administration is planning to eliminate the program, along with the J-1 intern, trainee, camp counselor and au pair programs.

But why is an organization like the chamber — which works to grow local businesses — against the president's executive order that's meant to protect American jobs?

The bottom line is - why does the area need J-1 students to succeed?

To hear local businessman Bill Griste explain it, the program allows both the Grand Strand and the students themselves to succeed.

"The benefits I've seen is that it gives us a chance to meet these kids," said Griste, with Grand Strand Dining. "They're wonderful kids; they're well educated. They're fine kids to work with. And we … quite often they come in at the beginning of the summer as strangers and they leave at the end of the summer as best friends."

Along with local businesses, the J-1 students who come to work in North Myrtle Beach get a lot from the program as well.

"First, year, I didn't have experience with American culture, and my English skills a little bit worse, but now I'm good," said Deniz Recber, a student from Turkey.

If the J-1 program were to go away, area business feel it would be disastrous for the local economy that depends on this workforce during tourist season.

"The message I would pass along to the Trump administration is please, please don't do away with the program," Griste said. "I know it's important to hire America and to buy America, but the importance of this program is beyond words actually, because of the relationship we're able to foster with other countries and, secondly, simply because it is a huge workforce in tourist-related areas."

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