Hoards of J-1 students are being forced to work in strip clubs and are earning as little as $1 an hour according to an Associated Press investigation.
The report found that many students are living in crowded apartments where they are forced to sleep in shifts because they aren't enough beds.
The J-1 summer work and travel program is the most popular visa offered by the State Department. Participation has significantly grown from 20,000 in 1996 to 150,000 in 2008.
Annually more than 100,000 college students come to the U.S. on the popular J-1 visa. In the past Government auditors have criticized problems with the program and the State Department, which is in charge of it, says it is working on an overhaul of the existing programs rules.
According to John Woods, deputy assistant director of national security for Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, there are currently at least two federal investigations into human trafficking underway which are related to J-1 visas.
As part of their investigation the Associated Press interviewed students, advocates, local authorities and social service agencies, as well as reviewing police reports and court cases.
They found that most foreign students pay exorbitant fees to recruiters to help them find employment. Many of them don't find work or end up earning little money in menial jobs.
Students are often packed into filthy, unfurnished apartments where some endure “hotbunking” whereby they sleep in shifts.
Despite the revelations the State Department is adamant that most students have a positive experience.
"The vast majority of participating students in this program find it a rewarding experience and return home safely," the State Department said in an e-mail to the AP.
However almost all of the 70 students interviewed by the AP in ten states, hailing from 16 countries said they were disappointed and angry.
"This is not what I thought when I paid all this money to come here," said Natalia Berlinschi, from Romania.
She came to the U.S. On a J-1 visa hoping to find work and save for dental school but instead she got stuck in South Carolina this past summer, jobless, she shared a three-bedroom house with 30 other foreign students.
"I was treated very, very badly," Berlinschi said. "I will never come back."
The program generates million for sponsor companies and labor recruiters annually.
Businesses are attracted to hiring students as they can save up to eight percent on wage costs as they don’t have to pay Medicare or Social Security, students are required to have health insurance before they arrive so it is one less cost the employers have.
"There's been a massive failure on the part of the United States to bring any accountability to the temporary work visa programs, and it's especially true for the J-1," said Terry Coonan, the executive director of Florida State University's Center for the Advancement of Human Rights.
The report suggests that strip clubs and adult entertainment companies openly solicit J-1 workers.
"It's difficult to prosecute these cases because the workers usually leave the country within a few months. That's why the J-1 is the ideal visa to exploit," Coonan said.
"If you wish to dance in USA as a J-1 exchange visitor, contact us," ZM Studios, a broker for topless dancers, advertised on its website this year.
In the Ocean City Baptist Church in Maryland, more than 1,700 J-1 students sought free meals this past summer.
In a statement to the Associated Press the State Department said it was concerned about the allegations being made.
"We are deeply concerned by any allegations involving the poor treatment of participants as this potentially undermines our goal of promoting mutual understanding and goodwill between the people of the United States and the people of other countries," the department said.
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