A coalition of businesses in Atlantic and Cape May counties is lobbying to preserve a foreign-worker program that helps sustain South Jersey’s tourism industry each summer.

The J-1 visa brings hundreds of foreign college students to South Jersey to work in hotels, amusements parks and boardwalk shops at a time when the demand for summer workers outstrips the supply. Nearly 6,000 foreign students worked in New Jersey in 2012, according to the U.S. State Department. An additional 710 worked as camp counselors, and 728 had business internships.

But the program has fallen under increasing scrutiny after employer abuses were discovered, including a Pennsylvania temp agency that did not live up to the cultural requirements of the program and stiffed more than 1,000 students on overtime and minimum wage at a Hershey’s chocolate plant.

The J-1 visa program has been subject to numerous abuses by both employers and sponsors, said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington.

As a former consular officer, she used to approve J-1 visa applications.

Vaughan said new federal rules are supposed to keep foreign students from working potentially dangerous jobs. And the employer is supposed to help the students gain exposure to American culture and society.

“It’s the honor system. There’s too little oversight. The abuses are rampant,” she said.

Too often, she said, businesses exploit the program just to recruit low-wage workers who won’t complain about working or living conditions.

Vaughan said employers would have more success in recruiting American students for seasonal jobs if they offered higher wages.

“Most members of Congress think it’s a feel-good cultural-exchange program. It’s nothing of the kind. It’s a way for employers to hire inexpensive workers from overseas and bypass available American workers who need those jobs,” she said.

Employers in South Jersey point to the fact that many of their student workers return the following summer as evidence of the program’s success.

“I’m sure many of them have had a good experience,” Vaughan said. “But it’s not hard to find those who have had a bad experience. If we could regulate it appropriately, it’s a great program. But if it’s just a work program that depresses opportunities for American youth, that’s a big problem.”

Congress has included the J-1 visa program in the larger debate over immigration reform. One of the proposed changes would have imposed greater controls, fees and potential fines on sponsor groups that match college students with jobs.

The Cape May County Chamber of Commerce and a group of local businesses have been working with federal lawmakers to keep the program intact.

“Last summer, Congress proposed an immigration bill that initially threatened the J-1 visa program,” chamber President Vicki Clark said. “It included additional fees that sponsoring agencies — the connector between students and employers — would pay. That would have created an economic hardship to the point where the program would be done away with or (be) in serious jeopardy.”

The U.S. Senate passed a bill in July that makes it illegal for sponsors to lie to students about the available jobs, fees and costs in their promotional or recruiting materials. It also imposes limits on how much these sponsor groups can charge students in fees and requires the sponsors to post a bond to help the students get back home if their employer or employment situation turns out to be exploitative.

The bill requires the State Department to levy sanctions against sponsors that break the law and protects student whistle-blowers from retaliation. The agency also would have to maintain a public list of complaints posted against employers or sponsor groups.

The House of Representatives has not taken up the bill and might not get to immigration reform anytime soon with other pressing matters, such as the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, said Jason Galanes, spokesman for U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-2nd.

“It’s a wait-and-see approach from the House. The congressman is keenly aware of the importance of J-1 visas on the Jersey Shore,” he said.

The idea of bringing foreign students to work in a part of New Jersey that has some of the highest unemployment rates in the country is incongruous, but it’s a quirk of the South Jersey tourism economy that’s widely understood, Galanes said.

“The farmers in Cumberland and Salem will talk about high unemployment, but they still need people to come in and pick for them,” he said.

Businesses of many kinds in Atlantic and Cape May counties depend on this source of employment, said Anthony Catanoso, president of Steel Pier in Atlantic City. More than half of the summer workers he hires to run his amusement park are foreign students, many from China and Eastern Europe.

“It would be crippling to us to lose (the program). We hire about 225 people, and about 125 are foreign students,” he said. “At Steel Pier, we hire a lot of local help at the beginning of the year, but traditionally they don’t last.”

American students often have conflicting obligations, including sports and scheduling conflicts when they have to return to school in late August, he said.

“We become heavily dependent on foreign contracts. Our kids come from Belarus, Bulgaria, Russia and Turkey. This program is critical for a seasonal employer. We hope that cooler heads prevail and they take a more businesslike approach,” he said.

But it’s not just large employers such as Steel Pier that hire foreign students.

The Billmae Cottage in Cape May has been hiring students part time for several years.

Owner Linda Steenrod, of Cape May, said the business is not an official participant in the visa program but hires foreign students who want to earn a little extra money while they are in Cape May.

“They have other jobs but just work for us for a couple hours a week,” she said.

Steenrod said she sees the benefits of the program for students who want to experience the United States firsthand.

“It’s a great way to meet people and build bridges of friendship,” she said.

She became friends with one of the workers from Turkey and paid him a visit while on vacation to the Middle East. She plans to return to Turkey in the fall.

Her guest suites are open only seasonally, so she can’t provide year-round employment. But when the summer comes, she needs to find cleaning staff.

Local students rarely compete for the same jobs as foreign students, she said.

“It’s a difficult situation. Right now, there’s almost nobody hiring in Cape May. There are very few places that can provide full-time jobs in Cape May,” she said.

“But in the summer, when they need a lot more people, they can’t find enough people,” Steenrod said. “The people who are local and looking for jobs want something more permanent and year-round, not seasonal part-time jobs.”

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