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Student visa program faces new rules, same problems

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

JACKSON, Miss. -- The State Department is publicly acknowledging that one of its most popular exchange programs leaves foreign college students vulnerable to exploitation, but it's unclear if new regulations the agency is pushing will do enough to stop the abuses.

The revised rules aim to shift more responsibility onto the 53 entities the department designates official sponsors in the J-1 Summer Work Travel Program. Historically, many sponsors have farmed out those duties to third-party contractors, making the sponsors "mere purveyors of J-1 visas," according to the State Department's proposed new rules published this spring in the Federal Register.

Federal auditors have criticized the department for years for depending on sponsors, some of whom make millions of dollars off J-1 students, to oversee the program and investigate complaints. Yet the new regulations would require little or no direct oversight by State Department employees, leaving sponsors free to continue policing themselves and their partners.

The changes are to take effect July 15, too late for thousands of students already in the country for another season of cleaning hotel rooms, waiting tables and working checkout counters.

Students visiting under J-1 visas make ideal victims since they are here temporarily and may not know how to seek help. An Associated Press investigation published six months ago found that many participants paid thousands of dollars to come to the U.S., only to learn the jobs they were promised didn't exist. Some had to share beds in crowded houses or apartments, charged so much for lodging and transportation that they took home no pay. Others turned to the sex industry, while some sought help from homeless shelters.

In posting the proposed new rules, State Department officials detailed problems that largely mirrored the AP's findings, then blamed lack of oversight by the sponsors, and expressed confidence the changes will help clean up the program, partly by requiring sponsors to verify that students have jobs and that the employers are legitimate.

New rules may not help

A review of the new regulations shows they have few teeth, however. While the changes spell out how sponsors are to vet third-party brokers and how often they are to touch base with visiting students, the rules are vague on how vigorously the State Department will check to verify those duties are done.

The proposed rules call for sponsors to compile reports, including background checks, on overseas brokers who put students in touch with them, and to submit those reports to U.S. consulates. The department also will conduct a spot check of the biggest sponsors.

But the agency has just a handful of employees who keep track of this and other foreign exchange programs, which handle more than 300,000 participants, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank that plans to publish a report on the program.

While the State Department acknowledged that housing and living conditions have been a problem, there's nothing in the new regulations that addresses oversight of those issues. The revised policies also contain no mention of penalties if sponsors are found lacking.

State Department spokesman John Fleming said rules already on the books allow sanctions ranging from written reprimands to revocation of sponsors' designations.

But the department also acknowledged that no Summer Work Travel sponsor has ever been removed from the program for its treatment of students, despite years of complaints of exploitation and deplorable living and working conditions, according to documents obtained by the AP.

And only a few sponsors have ever been reprimanded, according to the State Department.

Prompted in part by the AP project and by complaints from visiting students, the House Judiciary Committee's immigration subcommittee had planned a hearing on the program Wednesday, but the hearing was postponed.

The Summer Work Travel Program allows foreign college students to live and work in the United States for four months. It brought more than 130,000 men and women to the United States last year alone.


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