LAKE GEORGE — The growing trend of hiring foreign students to bolster the local economy is finally going to be organized.
Local leaders got real numbers Wednesday at a meeting about the J-1 visa. Federal officials came armed with every detail about the foreign students they approved to work here, from the actual number of workers (1,007) to the most common countries of origin (Jamaica, followed by Turkey and Russia).
They also revealed that 19 companies are officially sponsoring the students — far more than the handful of sponsors known by local officials.
Sponsors recruit students, help them get their visas and are nominally in charge of them while they are here. But in practice, there’s very little hand-holding. Students fly into JFK and have to figure out their own transportation to Lake George, then find apartments themselves.
That’s where sponsors and business owners are falling short, said Michael James of the Department of State. He spoke at the first of many seminars on the J-1 program local officials have planned for the off-season this year.
James called housing a “fundamental weakness” in the J-1 program, and called out sponsors for not doing enough about it.
They should work only with employers that have identified “suitable and affordable housing,” he said. They should also collaborate to identify and avoid problematic landlords, he added.
In other words: They should not leave it all up to the student.
Sponsors took that seriously.
Lauren Kelly of sponsor CIEE said they will start inspecting apartments in the region. They already come here to do site visits.
“We should be checking their housing,” she said after listening to complaints from several members of the public at the meeting.
“We will build a stronger network around housing in this community,” she promised.
In addition, Mayor Robert Blais said the Village Board is working on a law that would allow code enforcers to inspect. They will also use the information to “tip the sponsors off” about which landlords to avoid in the future, he said.
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Business owners asked sponsors to require students to stay overnight in New York City before traveling upstate. That way, they can get to Lake George during the day, giving them time to meet their employers and set up an apartment lease. If they take a bus upstate directly from the airport, they usually arrive after 7 p.m., when their employers have gone home for the night.
The students often can’t set up a rental in advance. Because some students have cancelled at the last minute, many landlords have refused to rent to people who aren’t here yet, said Matt Gates, general manager at the Tahoe Resort.
“So they were showing up at night. They had no housing,” he said. “Then you’re having to call on the phone, trying to find a place for the night.”
Business owners were surprised to learn that the Department of State expects them to help make the J-1 program a cultural experience.
“It’s a cultural exchange program to experience American life,” James said.
Work is allowed to offset the students’ costs, but it’s not supposed to be their primary reason for being here.
“You want them to go home having good things to say about it,” he said.
So he and the sponsors recommended that employers act as tour guides. They should tell students which roads are safest to bicycle on, where the urgent care office is located and when a local organization is having a free event.
Sponsors can tell when students had a good time. Each J-1 applicant gets to decide which location and job to take. They consider a “buffet” of choices, and often decide based on the job duties, pay and location. If they’ve heard good things about Lake George from their friends, they flock here.
If they don’t, they pick a different place to go. One local business was rejected 70 times this year. (The owner declined to give her name or her company’s name.)
Students from Jamaica used to come here in droves. But this year, far fewer came from that country, even though it was still the most common country of origin, James said.
Some business owners were also surprised to learn that students don’t have to work to keep their visa. Students usually sign a contract to work for three months and then travel for a month. But if they choose to quit their job, they do not have to find another one. They could simply start traveling early, James said.
“You cannot hold them hostage,” he said.