x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Flaws in US student visa plan leave some broke, or turning to sex trade

Federal auditors have criticised the rules of the J-1 Summer Work Travel Programme for years for depending on sponsors, some of whom make millions of dollars off students, to oversee the programme and investigate complaints.

The US State Department is publicly acknowledging that one of its most popular exchange programmes leaves foreign college students vulnerable to exploitation, but it is 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 as official sponsors in the J-1 Summer Work Travel Programme. 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 criticised the department for years for depending on sponsors, some of whom make millions of dollars off J-1 students, to oversee the programme 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 on tables and working checkout counters.

Students visiting under J-1 visas make ideal victims since they are in the US temporarily and may not know how to seek help. An investigation published six months ago found that many participants paid thousands of dollars to come to the US, only to learn the jobs they were promised did not 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 investigation's findings, then blamed lack of oversight by the sponsors, and expressed confidence the changes will help clean up the programme.

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 department will conduct a spot check of the biggest sponsors - but the agency has a little more than a dozen employees who keep track of this and other foreign exchange programmes, which handle more than 300,000 participants, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a non-partisan think-tank that plans to publish a report on the programme.

While the State Department acknowledged that housing and living conditions have been a problem, there is 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.

John Fleming, a State Department spokesman, 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 programme for its treatment of students, despite years of complaints of exploitation and deplorable living and working conditions, according to documents. And only a few sponsors have ever been reprimanded, according to the State Department.

George Collins, an Okaloosa County, Florida, sheriff's inspector who has been complaining to the State Department for 10 years about the problems, said: "You can have all the rules and the regulations in the world, but if you don't have enforcement, the rules are worthless. They're not worth the paper they're written on."