From Abroad and Without Work

International students have scooped ice cream and fluffed pillows for Martha’s Vineyard tourists for years. The chamber of commerce here has never kept statistics on them — more’s the pity, they keep few statistics on business here at all — but its officials have commented on them anecdotally. In good times, the foreign students’ willing hands were welcome. Now, as the Island has found itself home to a swell of these students just as the job market contracts, we have some duty to track their fortunes and likewise to make some comment, if not advocate for them, given the unfortunate situation in which they find themselves this year.

International university schedules fit the Island’s seasonal economy better than American colleges, which often call students back to campus by mid-August while the tourist season here stretches to Labor Day and beyond. Vineyard employers were even more welcoming of international students when last year the federal government crimped the H2-B visas, the sponsored guest worker permits that allow foreign workers to stay longer with a particular employer. Thousands of H2-B holders had worked on the Cape and Islands, from Brazil, Bulgaria, Jamaica; even last year, the loss of their numbers left a hole, and in rushed the students with their more flexible, if less secure, J-1 visas.

And in rushed immigration brokers, enticing students worldwide to pay up for help arranging the visas, and a map of the Cape and Islands, for a fee. One European site explained the summer population increase here, adding, “There is rarely a shortage of jobs, and you are practically guaranteed a constantly busy summer.” This site at least warned the Cape and Islands were popular with J-1 visa holders, and job seekers would face competition if they did not make prior work and housing arrangements.

In Friday’s Gazette, the manager of Mad Martha’s in Vineyard Haven, swamped with applications, reported that he had heard stories about mass groups sleeping on South Beach, other people sleeping in backyards and alleys. “It’s sad really,” he said.

These friendly students from around the world were misdirected this year, and their dilemma may have an unwelcome impact on the community if it is true they are reduced to vagrancy. They have been a staple of the workforce here, and though employers cannot be blamed for not hiring anyone if they have not the demand, the employers’ group here can seize this opportunity to improve the business environment. The chamber should track these trends, as well as hotel occupancy rates and other useful statistics for analysis. In this specific situation, the chamber would do well to contact the brokers involved, and try to develop an advisory role on brokers’ Web sites. Careful cooperation may prevent in future the dilemma now facing the indebted students, and facing the Island community that rightly has a reputation as a welcoming one.