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J1 Visa Abuse: What it is and How You Can Avoid It

Thousands of intelligent, motivated and enthusiastic foreign students travel to the United States on J1 visas in search of fun, adventure and meaningful work every year. But rather than experiencing the summer of their lives, some students end up toiling for hours every day in inhumane conditions or even being forced to work as strippers. The J1 visa for cultural work exchange is being abused on a daily basis, according to reports. Students and young people coming to the US expecting to widen their experience of the world are being shown the seedy side of America, say authorities probing abuse allegations under the worker visa program. Several recent high-profile cases show how the J1 visa is often a cover for exploitative labor and even people trafficking. But does this mean that students should avoid the J1 visa program? What can young people do to make sure their cultural exchange in the United States is a positive experience?

J1 Visa Abuse: What’s Going On?

Take a look at recent headlines and you’ll see the J1 visa exchange program has come under criticism from students and officials alike for the ways in which some employers or sponsors have been allegedly treating students and workers under their charge.

A group of college students from Argentina, Chile, Malaysia and other countries who traveled to the United States on the cultural work exchange visa program in 2013 ended up challenging the working conditions they allegedly suffered at a McDonald’s in Pennsylvania. Students like Jorge Rios from Argentina paid up to $3,000 for the visa processing and the program fee only to arrive in the US and discover the program wasn’t quite what they expected. The students worked for a McDonald’s franchise and lived in the unfinished basement of the house of the franchise owner – sharing the small rooms between seven people while still being expected to pay $300 a month for rent (over the odds for rent in that part of the country). They were told they would get 40 hours’ work a week but they only received 25, although they had to remain on-call whenever they weren’t in the restaurant. If they complained, the owner threatened them with deportation, the students claim.

However, Rios decided not to keep quiet. He staged a strike and filed grievances with the U.S. Labor Department and State Department. In 2013 he and his fellow J1 student workers staged a protest inside the restaurant chanting “McDonald’s, McDonald’s, can’t you see, what justice means to me” and displaying signs reading “J-1 Abuse, Not Lovin’ It.”

J1 Students Stripping and Begging for Work

There are other stories of students from abroad being left high-and-dry in the US, or working in undesirable jobs simply to make ends meet after a promised job never materializes.

One Romanian student came to the US on the J1 visa hoping to be able to save money to go to dental school in her home country but ended up without a job and having to beg for work as well as share a three-bedroom house with 30 other students in a similar situation.

A Russian student went to Florida to work in a souvenir shop but ended up in a topless bar because she couldn’t earn enough money to survive by working the shop. This is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to illegal and immoral business. Some students have their passports confiscated and are told to pay for travel and work documents, or are threatened with being sold to other businesses, in cases of illegal trafficking – pushing their families into serious debt and causing considerable stress.

Surviving on $1 an Hour?

According to an Associated Press investigation into J1 visa abuse, some students took home only $1 an hour or less from their summer jobs, while others were forced to work as strippers instead of as waitresses like the adverts promised. Adult entertainment companies and strip clubs solicit for J1 workers, critics claim, even though the regulations surrounding the J1 visa prohibit students from taking on work that could “bring the Department of State into notoriety or disrepute.”

Foreign students are paying recruiters to find them jobs but then they end up without work in the United States, and fall into debt trying to survive in the country. Many are forced to steal essentials like food and toiletries in order to get by. Or they are promised good quality jobs and end up with low-paid, menial work like sweeping floors or washing dishes. Recruiters charge students high rents for substandard accommodation – workers have been packed into dirty, cramped apartments sharing with other students, with many not having enough beds so the students are forced to sleep in shifts.

The AP investigation found almost all of the 70 students interviewed were disappointed and some very angry at their treatment on the program. Students are threatened with eviction or deportation if they complain or if they quit.

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