The State Department put a freeze Monday on expansion of a program that lines up summer jobs in the U.S. for foreign college students, citing persistent complaints about young people getting ripped off and exploited.
At issue is the J-1 visa program, which began in 1963 as a way to encourage cultural understanding by allowing young adults from other countries to spend their summers living, working and traveling in the U.S.
Nearly a year ago, The Associated Press reported numerous abuses, including cases in which students were put up in shabby, crowded apartments and forced to work grueling hours at backbreaking, menial jobs for $1 an hour or less. Some ended up going to homeless shelters for food or a place to sleep. At least one woman told the AP she was beaten and forced to work as a stripper in Detroit in 2005.
The State Department, which oversees the program, said Monday that is it limiting the number of future participants to this year's level, or about 103,000 students, and that it has temporarily stopped accepting any new "sponsors" _ companies that help students arrange for visas and find jobs and housing in return for a fee. Most of the abuses have been blamed on unregulated, third-party labor brokers who work with the students, but critics say the sponsors have done little to protect them.
In the meantime, the State Department said, it is taking a closer look at the program's regulations.
Under the program, foreign students are granted visas for up to four months and often land jobs at hotels, resorts and restaurants. Participation has boomed from about 20,000 students in 1996 to a peak of more than 150,000 in 2008, and roughly 1 million foreign students have taken part in the past decade.
Last summer, after years of complaints about abuses, the State Department revised it rules to shift more responsibility onto its 53 designated sponsors.
"Yet, despite these new regulations, the number of program complaints received this year continues to remain unacceptably high and includes, among other issues, reports of improper work placements, fraudulent job offers, job cancellations upon participant arrival in the United States, inappropriate work hours, and problems regarding housing and transportation," the State Department said Monday in announcing the freeze in the Federal Register.
State Department officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
John Bilan, 22, an economics student from Romania who worked during the summer at a candy factory in Pennsylvania, said the changes are not enough, and come too late for students like him. Bilan said he would like to see the sponsor he used shut down and the program return to a focus on cultural experiences.
"It should not be about bringing cheap labor for American companies," Bilan said. "And the worst part is that when you go to get your visa at the embassy, they say to you that you have rights, you are protected, and there is somebody who will help you, all you need is to call a number. But in reality when you stand up for your rights, the sponsor representatives come to your house to try to intimidate you."
Danielle Grijalva, director of the Committee for Safety of Foreign Exchange Students, said abuses in the program "harm the reputation of the United States."
The moratorium on accepting new sponsors "should remain in effect until the State Department implements even stronger rules sanctioning sponsors that retaliate, intimidate and coerce students to remain quiet when reporting violations of U.S. laws," she said.
The J-1 program has become big business over the years, generating millions for the participating employers and middleman companies. The students pay fees that reach several thousand dollars.
Many employers say they need the seasonal help to meet the demands of tourist season. Businesses that hire a foreign student over an American can save 8 percent because they don't have to pay Medicare, Social Security and unemployment taxes. Also, the foreigners must have their own health insurance.
George Collins, an inspector with the Okaloosa County Sheriff's Department in the Florida Panhandle, said Monday he is glad the State Department is recognizing problems with the program, but he is skeptical about how much of a difference will result.
He said the State Department has failed over the years to deal with the "severe exploitation" of young people, and he has called problems with the program "epidemic" in his area, a tourist region with white sand beaches on the Gulf of Mexico.
Year after year, he said, he has seen labor recruiters charge students exorbitant rent for packing them into filthy, sparsely furnished apartments so crowded that some have to sleep in shifts, a practice known as "hotbunking."
Last August, dozens of workers protested conditions at candy factory that packs Hershey chocolates in Pennsylvania, complaining of hard physical labor and pay deductions for rent that often left them with little money.
Under the program, the visas are issued year-round, since students come from both the Northern and Southern hemispheres on their summer breaks. They work all over the country, at theme parks in Florida and California, fish factories in Alaska and ski destinations in Colorado and Montana.
The State Department has said most participants enjoy the program, make memories and friends they keep for life, and often apply to participate more than once. But critics of the program say the weak economy has made it much harder for students to earn back the money they pay just to participate.
Many students complained that they were threatened with deportation or eviction if they quit their jobs. Some resorted to stealing essentials like food, toothpaste and underwear, according to police.
Associated Press writers Mitch Weiss in Charlotte, N.C., and Melissa Nelson in Pensacola, Fla., contributed to this report.