Advocates push for more reforms to foreign student visa program

JACKSON — The State Department should add housekeepers to a list of prohibited jobs for foreign college students who spend their summers in the United States as part of cultural exchange program that has left participants vulnerable to exploitation, an advocacy group said yesterday.

The State Department announced major changes to the J-1 Summer Work and Travel Program in May and expanded a list of jobs that students should not be allowed to work. It was the latest in a series of steps to fix the program since The Associated Press reported in 2010 that abuses included participants working in strip clubs or living and working in conditions they compared to indentured servitude.

The program allows foreign college students to spend up to four months in the United States. They are required to have jobs. The program was meant to foster cultural understanding, but it has become a multimillion-dollar international business that brings more than 100,000 students to the United States each year. They often work in restaurants and resorts.

Among changes the State Department implemented was expanding a list of prohibited jobs to include manufacturing, construction and agriculture. The program also bans participants from working in the sex industry.

The State Department opened up a period for public comment on the changes.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit civil rights organization, submitted a list of recommendations on Tuesday as part of that process, including adding housekeeping to the list of prohibited jobs.

The State Department didn’t immediately respond to AP’s request for comment.

SPLC said it has interviewed hundreds of program participants in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and the Florida Panhandle. The organization said that in 2011 it found students working as housekeepers at a casino in Mississippi where pay was based on how many rooms they cleaned in a day.

The SPLC said the company that arranged the students’ jobs and housing charged so much for rent that one participant reported taking home $189 for 67 hours of work — less than $3 an hour.

In addition to banning housekeeping, SPLC urged the State Department to step up enforcement of rules to protect the participants, and ensure they aren’t displacing American workers.

In announcing the changes in May, the State Department acknowledged the work aspect of program “has too often overshadowed the core cultural component necessary for the Summer Work Travel Program to be consistent with the intent of the (1961) Fulbright-Hays Act.”

The visa program is aimed at allowing students of modest means to work in seasonal or temporary jobs as a way of offsetting the costs of their travel. But some businesses have been using the students as a source of cheap labor.

SPLC said the department should take jurisdiction over employers rather than leaving it to sponsor companies to police the program because a sponsor “has little incentive to self-police or regulate its business partners.” SPLC said offending companies should be banned.

“At its core, there’s nothing wrong with having an exchange program. The real flaw is when this program is used as a tool to exploit workers and that’s what it has turned into,” SPLC deputy legal director Dan Werner told AP.

In one of the worst cases of abuse, a woman told the AP she was beaten, raped and forced to work as a stripper in Detroit after being promised a job as a waitress in Virginia. A federal indictment last year in New York charged that members of the Gambino and Bonnano mafia families and Russian mobsters were using fraudulent job offers to help eastern European women come to the United States to work in strip clubs.

Students at a candy factory that packs Hershey chocolates in Hershey, Pa., protested last year over what they called hard labor and pay deductions for rent that often left them with little money. The company that sponsored those students lost its State Department certification.

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