Jewish Summer Camps Face Immigration Bill Fight

Fighting to Keep Visa Rules for Israeli Counselors


By Nathan Guttman

Published June 25, 2013.
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Immigration reform is more than legislating a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants and enhancing border security.

For the Jewish community, it also has to do with a timely issue: making sure Israeli counselors can keep on coming to Jewish summer camps.

The proposed bill that is working its way through the Senate had initially included several provisions that would have made it harder to obtain a J-1 visa, a non-immigrant visa category reserved for exchange visitors who come to the United States for a limited time to work and study. For the Jewish community, this visa is especially useful for getting Israelis and other foreign citizens to staff summer camps for Jewish youth.

The visas, said Rachel Laser, deputy director of the Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center, “allow an important cultural exchange” between American youth and international staff members.

The original Senate version of the immigration reform bill added extra requirements for obtaining these temporary visa, including an increase in fees to $500.

In response, a group of Jewish organizations operating summer camps wrote a joint letter to all members of Senate arguing that the added burden could undermine the foreign counselor program for Jewish camp and negatively impact the summer camp experience for Jewish youth. The letter noted that Jewish camps employ every season 1,400 Israeli counselors and another 1,300 international staffers.

It didn’t take much lobbying to change the regulations offered in the new bill. An amended version lowered the visa fees to $100 and added protections to foreign visitors coming to the United States under the visitor exchange program.

“We feel the bill, in its current version, reduces the regulatory burden and we feel happy to support it,” said Laser.

Even still, it’s hardly a done deal.

If the immigration bill passes the Senate, it still faces an uncertain future in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, where Speaker John Boehner has vowed to block passage of any measure that cannot win support of a majority of GOP members.

All the provisions, including the temporary visa measures, could be renegotiated at that stage of the legislative drama, leaving Jewish groups to keep a wary eye on the process.


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