Visit a Harris Teeter or a Food Lion supermarket on North Carolina’s Outer Banks this summer and your groceries might well be rung up by someone with an East European, Chinese, or Jamaican accent. Every summer, around 1,200 young internationals come to the sparsely populated region to man grocery checkouts, clean hotel rooms, and handle kite-board rentals, says Jamie Bond, chairwoman of the Outer Banks International Student Outreach Program. The guest workers play a vital role in keeping the region’s $953 million tourism industry alive, she says. “We couldn’t do what we do without them.”
For a population of 35,000 year-round residents that explodes to almost 270,000 in the summer, the foreign workers—most are college students—have become the only way for local businesses to meet their seasonal labor needs, says Bond, who also works as a business manager for Spring Arbor, an assisted-living community owned by HHHunt Corporation. The tourist season runs longer than U.S. college summer breaks, so American students don’t make good temporary workers. “We’re kind of a sandbar stuck out in the middle of the ocean,” she says. “There’s no major city out here, so we just don’t have the workforce to do what we need to do.”
The sudden influx of foreign workers, many from places as far afield as Thailand and Poland, can be startling at first, Bond says. She laughingly recalls her own first day working as a manager for a beachfront recreation company, when she found herself asked to take charge of eight teenaged workers who didn’t speak much English. “I was like, you didn’t mention that in the interview,” she says. But Bond quickly came to appreciate the young visitors’ energy and enthusiasm. Some American workers call in sick and head for the beaches when the surf picks up, Bond says, but the foreign workers are eager to keep working to earn as much money as they can. “You can ask any employer here, these kids are way more motivated and way more reliable,” Bond says. “They know if they bust it all summer they can make enough money to go to Vegas or Disneyland or D.C. before they head home.”
Traditionally, the immigrants that come to this country have been the ones who’ve been willing to roll up their sleeves and get stuff done. They’re here to work, and we should welcome that.
The visas issued to the workers require them to return home soon after the tourist season ends, and Bond hasn’t heard of anyone overstaying. Some do fall in love with the Outer Banks and wind up returning on other visas, to work or to study at the local community college; others view their time in the United States as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to travel and earn money before starting careers in their home countries. “These are not kids that are here to exploit our system,” Bond says. “They’re here to learn about our culture and see the world, and then they’re going to go back to their country and be movers and shakers there.”
In that sense, Bond says, the Outer Banks guest worker program is an example of immigration done right. The broader immigration debate doesn’t have much impact on Bond’s small community—“There’s nobody crossing deserts to get to my back yard,” she jokes—but she thinks national policymakers could learn from the way the region embraces temporary foreign workers. She’d like to see other communities—and other industries, such as agriculture or construction—be given the same opportunity to bring in enough foreign workers on temporary visas to meet their fluctuating labor needs. “For people who want to come here and to work, and who want to contribute, well that’s more than some of the people who are born here want to do,” she says. “Traditionally, the immigrants that come to this country have been the ones who’ve been willing to roll up their sleeves and get stuff done. They’re here to work, and we should welcome that.”