U.S. Fails to Tackle Student Visa Abuses

December 6, 2010 - 5:52 AM

Myrtle Beach, S.C. (AP) - Lured by unsupervised, third-party brokers with promises of steady jobs and a chance to sightsee, some foreign college students on summer work programs in the U.S. get a far different taste of life in America.

An Associated Press investigation found students forced to work in strip clubs instead of restaurants. Others take home $1 an hour or even less. Some live in apartments so crowded that they sleep in shifts because there aren't enough beds. Others have to eat on floors.

They are among more than 100,000 college students who come to the U.S. each year on popular J-1 visas, which supply resorts with cheap seasonal labor as part of a program aimed at fostering cultural understanding.

Government auditors have warned about problems in the program for 20 years, but the State Department, which is in charge of it, only now says it is working on new rules. Officials won't say what those rules are or discuss on the record the problems that have plagued J-1 visas.

John Woods, deputy assistant director of national security for Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, told the AP there were at least two federal investigations under way into human trafficking related to J-1 visas. He would not provide details.

The AP interviewed students, advocates, local authorities and social service agencies, and reviewed thousands of pages of confidential records, police reports and court cases. Among the findings:

-- Many foreign students pay recruiters to help find employment, then don't get work or wind up making little or no money at menial jobs. Labor recruiters charge students exorbitant rent for packing them into filthy, sparsely furnished apartments so crowded that some endure "hotbunking," where they sleep in shifts.

Students routinely get threatened with deportation or eviction if they quit, or even if they just complain too loudly. Some resort to stealing essentials like food, toothpaste and underwear, according to police.

"The vast majority of participating students in this program find it a rewarding experience and return home safely," the State Department said in an e-mail to the AP.

But it's not hard to find exceptions. Most of the nearly 70 students the AP interviewed in 10 states, hailing from 16 countries, said they were disappointed, and some were angry.

"This is not what I thought when I paid all this money to come here," said Natalia Berlinschi, a Romanian who came to the U.S. on a J-1 visa hoping to save up for dental school but got stuck in South Carolina this summer without a job. She took to begging for work on the Myrtle Beach boardwalk and sharing a three-bedroom house with 30 other exchange students.

"I was treated very, very badly," Berlinschi said. "I will never come back."

-- The State Department failed to even keep up with the number of student complaints until this year, and has consistently shifted responsibility for policing the program to the 50 or so companies that sponsor students for fees that can run up to several thousand dollars. That has left businesses to monitor their own treatment of participants.

The program generates millions for the sponsor companies and third-party labor recruiters.

Businesses that hire students can save 8 percent by using a foreign worker over an American because they don't have to pay Medicare, Social Security and unemployment taxes. The students are required to have health insurance before they arrive, another cost that employers don't have to bear.

Many businesses say they need the seasonal work force to meet the demand of tourist season.

"There's been a massive failure on the part of the United States to bring any accountability to the temporary work visa programs, and it's especially true for the J-1," said Terry Coonan, a former prosecutor and the executive director of Florida State University's Center for the Advancement of Human Rights.

The issues are serious enough that the former Soviet republic of Belarus told its young people in 2006 to avoid going to the U.S. on a J-1, warning of a "high level of danger" after one of its citizens in the program was murdered, another died in what investigators in the U.S. said was a suicide, and a third was robbed.

-- Strip clubs and adult entertainment companies openly solicit J-1 workers, even though government regulations ban students from taking jobs "that might bring the Department of State into notoriety or disrepute."

"If you wish to dance in USA as a J-1 exchange visitor, contact us," ZM Studios, a broker for topless dancers, advertised on its website this year. The ad said ZM Studios is "affiliated with designated visa sponsors" and can get women J-1 visas and jobs at topless clubs in cities like Las Vegas and Los Angeles.

ZM Studios president Julian Andreev denied employing J-1 students in an e-mail to the AP, but the company's site on Friday still guaranteed help getting visas for prospective dancers, noting that they need a J-1 or one of two other types of visas to work legally.

J-1 students have been recruited to smuggle cash that authorities said was stolen from U.S. bank accounts, court records show, and their identities have been used in a million-dollar income tax scam.

"It's difficult to prosecute these cases because the workers usually leave the country within a few months. That's why the J-1 is the ideal visa to exploit," Coonan said.

In the worst cases, students get funneled into sexual slavery.

The J-1 Summer Work and Travel program, which allows college students to visit for up to four months, is one of the State Department's most popular visas. Participation has boomed from about 20,000 in 1996 to a peak of more than 150,000 in 2008.

The visas are issued year-round, since students come from both hemispheres on their summer breaks. They work all over the country, at theme parks in Florida and California, fish factories in Alaska and upscale ski destinations in Colorado and Montana.

The influx has been especially overwhelming for some resort towns.

In Maryland, the Ocean City Baptist Church served more than 1,700 different J-1 participants from 46 countries who sought free meals this summer, sometimes upward of 500 in one night, said Lynn Davis, who leads the food ministry.

Down the coast in Virginia Beach, Va., a homeless shelter that typically feeds 100 people a day was serving twice that many this summer as the site became overrun with J-1 students. The Judeo-Christian Outreach Center began running out of food on some days and was forced to limit how often the students could eat there, said Tony Zontini, the shelter's assistant director.

Hotels, restaurants and other businesses often hire third-party labor recruiters to supply the J-1 workers. Many of those brokers are people from the students' native countries, often former Soviet bloc nations.

These middlemen commonly dock students' pay so heavily for lodging, transportation and other necessities that the wages work out to $1 an hour or less, according to George Collins, an inspector at the Okaloosa County Sheriff's Department in the Florida Panhandle who has worked cases involving J-1 students since 2001.

Collins, who once notified the State Department that "J-1 abuse is epidemic here," told the AP the same companies often exploit students year after year despite his reporting them.

For years, the State Department has refused to publicly discuss problems in the program in any kind of detail.

The AP asked the State Department in a Freedom of Information Act request in March 2009 for a full list of complaints related to the program. In May, more than a year later, the department finally responded that it kept no such list, and that it keeps records related to the program for only three years.

Last month, the department said it had finally created a database of complaints.

"It turns out that until this year, we did NOT keep a record of complaints. Now, we do," Marthena Cowart, a senior adviser for the department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, said in a Nov. 10 e-mail.

Cowart did not provide a copy of the complaint database to the AP or indicate how many complaints it included. And the department declined to discuss the AP's findings on the record.

"We are deeply concerned by any allegations involving the poor treatment of participants as this potentially undermines our goal of promoting mutual understanding and goodwill between the people of the United States and the people of other countries," the department said Friday in declining an interview request.

For the many J-1 women who end up working in strip clubs, whether by choice or force, the changes can't come soon enough.

In Florida, a 19-year-old Russian told the AP she went to work as a cocktail waitress this summer at a topless bar in Fort Walton Beach because the souvenir shop where she worked didn't pay much and the shop owner had her living in a crowded, run-down apartment.

She gave the AP only her first name, Oleysa, because she hadn't told her parents.

"My father doesn't know where I work," she said, lowering her gaze to a tray of beers and mixed drinks.

A Ukrainian woman who said she was forced to strip in Detroit asked the AP to identify her only as Katya, because she fears for her life.

Katya, who used the same alias when testifying to Congress in October 2007 about how sex trafficking brought her to the U.S., said she was studying sports medicine in Kiev back in 2004 when her boss told her about the J-1 program.

Instead of waitressing for a summer in Virginia as she'd been promised, however, Katya and another student were forced to strip at a club in Detroit. Their handler confiscated their passports and told them they had to pay $12,000 for the travel arrangements and another $10,000 for work documents, according to court records.

Katya said he eventually demanded she come up with $35,000 somehow, by dancing or other means.

"I said, 'That's not what I signed here for. That's not right.' He said, 'Well, you owe me the money. I don't care how I get it from you. If I have to sell you, I'll sell you.'"

The women were told that if they refused, their families in Ukraine would be killed, Katya said.

Over the next months, the two men beat the women, threatened them with guns and made them work at Cheetah's strip club, court records state. Katya said one of the men also forced her to have sex, a memory she still struggles with.

The two men are now in prison, and Katya's old boss in the Ukraine is a fugitive.

Even J-1 students who avoid physical or sexual abuse often face other challenges.

Exchange student Munkh-Erdene Battur said he and four others were fired from their fast-food jobs last year in Riverton, Wyo., after complaining about living in what looked like a converted garage and paying $350 apiece per month for the accommodations.

"In my whole life, I've never lived in that kind of place and that kind of conditions," said Battur, who is from Mongolia.

Iuliia Bolgaryna came to work this summer at a souvenir store on the outskirts of Surf City, N.C.

The store manager offered to let her and two other women from the Ukraine stay with him for $120 a week. But he wouldn't let them eat at the table, so they huddled together for meals on the floor. They worked loads of overtime but were only paid for 40 hours a week.

The store manager declined to comment.

"It was almost normal that he screamed, that we worked 14 hours, that we ate on the floor," she said. "That was our America."

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Mohr reported from along the Florida Panhandle. Weiss reported from Myrtle Beach and Columbia, S.C. Baker reported from Surf City, N.C. Associated Press writers Michael Kunzelman in New Orleans and Mike Schneider in Orlando contributed to this report. AP videojournalist Jason Bronis contributed from Detroit and the Florida Panhandle.