A western Iowa college says it has found new internships for dozens of international students who were facing being sent home by the end of January because of a problem that unfolded with a visa program.
“Internships have been secured for 43 students while seven students are still remaining,” said Western Iowa Tech Community College President Terry Murrell at a Tuesday news conference. “And we’re working hard at finding internships for those seven students.”
Western Iowa Tech in Sioux City brought in 60 students from Chile and Brazil on cultural exchange non-immigrant J-1 visas last July and August, primarily to study culinary arts or robotics and automation. One of those students is Antonio Diego.
After finishing a chemical engineering degree in Brazil, Diego could not find a job in his chosen field. Then, a chance to continue his education nearly 5,000 miles away in Iowa came knocking on his door.
“They were promising a lot of good things to us,” said Diego, 24. “That was our opportunity to get a better life.”
Western Iowa Tech recruited Diego and 59 other students from Brazil and Chile on cultural exchange non-immigrant J-1 visas last year. The students arrived on campus last July and August. Students said WITCC promised to cover tuition, housing, “fees” and “supplies” and they were told they would work in an internship related to their field.
Diego chose to study robotics and automation.
“When we arrived, everything was okay, was really perfect,” Diego said. “But then things changed in August when we started to work.”
Set up with paid internships through local recruiting agency J&L Staffing, Diego and others soon found themselves assigned to work at local packing and manufacturing plants. Some were put to work at animal processing company Tur-Pak Foods in Sioux City. Diego was among those assigned to work at Royal Canin, a pet food manufacturing company in North Sioux City, S.D.
The work Diego did involved carrying 50 pound bags filled with rice and corn, not anything to do with robotics or automation, he said. He worked overnight shifts of at least 12 hours, often getting home at 6 a.m. and going to class an hour later.
“Sometimes the work was really hard, really, really hard,” Diego said, adding that sometimes he and his fellow students had trouble getting to their classes in the morning because they “were really tired.”
Students, victims' advocates with the Centers Against Abuse and Sexual Assault, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement and Iowa City Catholic Worker on Monday came forward with accusations that the students came to WITCC under false pretenses. They said the students were promised free tuition, food, housing and an internship in their field of work. In statements from Iowa City Catholic Worker and Iowa CCI, the two groups compared the issue to “modern day slavery” and “exploitation.”
The students and advocates claim they were being overworked and underpaid, making $7.25 an hour and not always getting overtime pay. Students said WITCC threatened to deport them. In a news release, Iowa CCI said, “anyone who complained about harassment or unsafe work conditions, forced overtime, injuries on the job, called in sick, asked for less hours, more pay, or a reduced course load were threatened with expulsion, deportation, and debt repayment.”
Murrell said the college "does not have the ability to deport students," adding that according to a signed agreement with the students, “students would have to pay their way home if they did not fulfill the requirements of this program.”
Some of the students left the program early, Murrell said, but the college decided to pay their way home.
In an interview with IPR, Troy Jasman, the vice president of finance and administrative services at WITCC, said to his knowledge, no WITCC employee has threatened the students. “That is not what we do,” Jasman said.
WITCC has had international students on campus before, including students from South Korea. But this past semester was the school’s first time working with the J-1 Visa program. Jasman said the college had to apply to the U.S. State Department to participate.
“It was really to enhance our college community as well as the community that we serve,” said Jasman, on the program.
Jasman said the college sent employees overseas during the summer to interview students and make sure the program was a good fit for both the students and WITCC.
The J-1 Visa program is a work-study exchange that allows people to come to the U.S., advance their English, take classes and build their skills through an internship in their “chosen occupational field,” according to the State Department.
To connect students with work, WITCC reached out to J&L Staffing and Recruiting in Sioux City, Jasman said. The agency specializes in job placements and temporary work.
“That’s where the relationship struggled with that, as far as helping get students placed into some work experience that dovetailed what their education was going to be at the college,” Jasman said.
Jasman said the college was aware that students had been put to work at the two plants but, “we believed that the students were going to have the proper work experience at those two companies,” he said.
Kelly Conway, a spokesperson for J&L Staffing said the company denies allegations from the Centers Against Abuse and Sexual Assault, Iowa CCI and Iowa City Catholic Worker that Western Iowa Tech students were being exploited. J&L’s role was to place students in work environments, he said. He singled out Royal Canin as “probably one of the best employers you’ll find.”
The State Department came to the college in November to conduct a review of the the J-1 Visa program. According to Jasman, the department said it should be up to the college, not J&L Staffing, to place students into internships. WITCC then ended its relationship with J&L.
The State Department also told the college that the work experience with Tur-Pak and Royal Canin was insufficient, so the college pulled the students from that work, Jasman said.
“The college met with the students to say ‘here’s some of the changes that we have to do. You no longer will be working with those two companies and we need to find other opportunities for you’,” Jasman said.
In a statement sent to IPR Tuesday, a State Department official said “The Office of Private Sector Exchange is now working closely with WITCC as it determines appropriate next steps to help ensure the integrity of the program, identify appropriate student internships, and ensure the health, safety and welfare of the WITCC exchange visitors.”
Students said they were making $7.25 an hour and that $7.75 was paid to WITCC. Jasman said the $7.75 was provided as a scholarship to the school to help pay for tuition, fees and housing for the J-1 Visa program.
Since students are required under their visa to attend classes and work at an internship for 32 hours a week, the State Department told the college they should have all of the students placed in internships by Jan. 31.
“If we wouldn’t, then of course we would not be in compliance with the State Department’s requirements,” Jasman said.
That means the students would have to leave the U.S. and go back to their home countries.
But Murrell said the college is “aggressively pursuing these internships” for the remaining seven students because it wants the students “to be successful.”
“From the very beginning, we’ve been working to help these students and make this a positive experience for them,” Murrell said, on the program overall.
One of the other issues raised by students and advocacy groups was that students said they were told they would have a meal plan, but they ended up having to pay for their own food. Students said the college occasionally gave them gift cards to Walmart to buy food and told them to ask churches for food. Murrell said there was “a breakdown in communication” on the food and meals issue.
“Western Iowa Tech has provided some resources, such as gift cards and access to the college's food pantry,” Murrell said. “While there's no contractual obligation on Western Iowa Tech’s part to do so, Western Iowa Tech is in the process of ensuring that we secure food for our students during the remainder of the program.”
The J-1 Visa program, which was originally designed as a two-year experience, is reduced to a one-year program, Murrell said.
“We’re reassessing everything right now,” Murrell said. “I can tell you we’ve recruited no students for next year. And my gut is we will not recruit students for next year.”
Murrell continued, “We will have to determine whether we continue this program. But we are committed to continuing the students that are here now.”