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Western Iowa Tech Finds New Internships For International Students

Katie Peikes
IPR file
The State Department told Western Iowa Tech to find new internships by Jan. 31 for 50 students from Chile and Brazil on J-1 visas, or the students would need to go back to their home countries.

Western Iowa Tech Community College in Sioux City has found new internships for international students that came to the college on non-immigrant visas. The college met a Jan. 31 deadline set by the federal government to secure new placements after students were pulled from internships that were deemed unacceptable.
The U.S. Department of State told the college to find new internships by Jan. 31 for 50 students from Chile and Brazil on J-1 visas, or the students would need to go back to their home countries. In a Tuesday interview, WIT’s Director of Marketing and Publications Andrea Rohlena said new placements have been found for everyone.

“The college is currently creating individual internship plans for each student,” Rohlena said. “Those are being sent to the U.S. Department of State for review. And then we are waiting for approval for those placements.”

WIT’s Vice President of Finance and Administrative Services Troy Jasman said in a text message Friday although the college has identified internships for everyone, “not all students have completed the application process. Some are in the process now." He added the State Department is “working very closely with the college.”

Rohlena declined to say which businesses are hosting the internships until the State Department approves them, but she assured they are related to students’ coursework in culinary arts, robotics and other fields the students are pursuing. 

"Now we are simply trying to repair the rift in the relationship that has occurred between Western Iowa Tech and these students." - Andrea Rohlena, Western Iowa Tech

Last July and August, 60 students from Chile and Brazil came to WIT on J-1 visas, to take classes and work in internships. WIT worked with a third-party recruiting and staffing agency, J&L Staffing, to find internships for the students.

In January, 11 students, victims’ advocates with the Centers Against Abuse and Sexual Assault, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement and Iowa City Catholic Worker came forward with allegations that students were brought to the college under false pretenses and were "being exploited in school and on the job." Students were put to work at Sioux City packing plant Tur-Pak Foods and North Sioux City, S.D. pet food manufacturing company Royal Canin, said a couple of students in interviews with news organizations.

Antonio Diego, a student from Brazil who came to WIT to study robotics and automation, said he worked at Royal Canin where his duties included carrying 50-pound bags filled with rice and corn. He worked overnight shifts of at least 12 hours, often getting home at 6 a.m. and going to class an hour later, he said.

“Sometimes the work was really hard, really, really hard,” Diego said in a Jan. 20 interview. He added that sometimes he and his fellow students had trouble getting to their classes in the morning because they “were really tired.”

Federal officials came to review WIT’s program in November. A State Department letter to WIT in December detailed more than a dozen “potential regulatory violations” and areas of concern the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs’ Office of Private Sector Exchange Program Administration told WIT to address. One of the potential violations was that students were placed into unskilled internships at packing and manufacturing plants, and those jobs are not acceptable under WIT’s visa program.

“Many of the interviewed WIT Program exchange visitors commented there are few learning opportunities apart from their current classes. Exchange visitors placed at Royal Canin and Tur-Pak Foods Inc. described a typical day at their internship site as line operators, placing food items in trays, cutting frozen meat, throwing food items in a mixer, loading crates with products, and inspecting packaged products. As detailed in Department of State Guidance Directive 2018-01 College and University Student Category: Avoiding Unskilled Placements in Academic Training and Student Internship Programs, sponsors are specifically prohibited from placing student interns in unskilled or casual labor positions (22 C.F.R. § 62.23(i)(8)(i)).”

The review also said WIT’s program largely appeared to “fill a labor need, rather than providing a student internship.”

In an email to IPR, a State Department official said the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs has been working with WIT to correct its program. The official reiterated that unskilled and casual labor are not allowed under WIT's visa program. 

Asked if WIT was trying to fill a labor need in Sioux City with its program, Rohlena referred to the purpose of the J-1 Visa program as a cultural exchange program. “The idea is to bring people from other nations to the United States to learn a skill that they can then take back into their home country,” Rohlena said.

WIT administrators have been in regular communication with the students, WIT President Terry Murrell said during a Jan. 21 news conference. After the internship fallout, some of the students chose to go home. The college paid for their airfare, he said. 

In a detailed letter about the visa program, Murrell wrote that when the visas were issued in 2019, they were issued under the category “College and University Internships," unbeknownst to WIT, which thought it was doing a visa program under a similar category, “College and University Academic Training." Under the internship category, the State Department does not allow visa sponsors to use third party agencies like the staffing agency WIT worked with.

“It wasn’t until the U.S. Dept. of State report arrived on Dec. 17 that it became very evident there were serious issues,” Murrell wrote, adding that many of the areas the State Department required the college to correct would not have been issues under the academic training category, but were problems under the internship category.

The college had been looking for new internships for the students ever since it received the State Department review, Rohlena said. 

WIT applied to the State Department in December 2017 to bring international students in on the J-1 Visa program. The college was approved in February 2019. Rohlena said WIT was eager and anxious to jump in because of the success it has had with other international programs, but in hindsight, the college should have taken longer to implement it.

“We know that we made mistakes. We know that we didn't do it right,” Rohlena said. “We know that we made some clerical errors in the very beginning that have since created some really negative consequences for our students now."

She continued, “Now we are simply trying to repair the rift in the relationship that has occurred between Western Iowa Tech and these students.”

Katie Peikes was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio from 2018 to 2023. She joined IPR as its first-ever Western Iowa reporter, and then served as the agricultural reporter.