US revamps student work visa program after abuses

May 4, 2012 - 11:55 AM

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — The State Department announced major changes Friday to its premier student-exchange program following an investigation by The Associated Press that found widespread abuses,

The agency issued new rules for the J-1 Summer Work and Travel Program, which brings more than 100,000 foreign college students to the Unites States each year.

The changes are the latest in a series of steps the State Department has taken to fix the program since an Associated Press investigation in 2010 revealed widespread abuses.

The AP investigation found some participants working in strip clubs, and not always willingly, while others were put in living and working conditions they compared to indentured servitude.

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.

More common than sex trade problems were shabby housing, hefty work hours and paltry pay. In August of 2011, dozens of workers protested conditions at a candy factory that packs Hershey chocolates in Hershey, Penn., complaining of hard physical labor and pay deductions for rent that often left them with little money.

Officials say the new rules limit the hours and jobs participants can work and make clear the program is about fostering cultural understating.

The J-1 program, created under the Fulbright-Hays Act of 1961, allows foreign college students to spend up to four months living and working in the U.S. It was meant to foster cultural understanding, but has become a multimillion dollar international business.

"In recent years, the work component has too often overshadowed the core cultural component necessary for the Summer Work Travel Program to be consistent with the intent of the Fulbright-Hays Act. Also, the Department learned that criminal organizations were involving participants in incidents relating to the illegal transfer of cash, the creation of fraudulent businesses, and violations of immigration law," the State Department said in announcing the new rules.

The program was meant to allow students who couldn't otherwise afford to visit the U.S. to work in seasonal, temporary jobs to offset the costs of their travel. But many participants have been packed into overcrowded housing and sent to work in places like factories, where they had little exposure to American culture.

The new rules are meant to ensure that students get jobs where there will be interaction with Americans. There also are three new rules meant to protect American workers, including prohibiting companies from hiring J-1 workers if the company has had layoffs in the previous 120 days.