Known forms of exploitation include forced sex and labor, organ removal, forced begging, child marriages, child soldiering, and forced criminality acts. Education has always been a positive factor in raising awareness and preventing human trafficking. Education is the best defense against poverty. It is the road to the future. But sadly, this road has a new barrier. A recent news story shocked and outraged me because of the exploitative intent inside the American education system.
The J-1 Program
The United States State Department’s Exchange Visitor (J) non-immigrant visa category program enables foreign nationals to teach, study, conduct research, demonstrate special skills or receive on-the-job training ranging from a few weeks to several years. The J-1 program is designed for university students to participate in work-and-study in the United States.
A New Kind of Student Debt Bondage
A community college in Iowa began its J-1 program in early 2019. By summer, sixty international students had arrived in Iowa. However, by November, the college was under investigation by the U.S. State Department. based on student complaints. Students from South America claimed that they were brought to the United States “into debt bondage.” This bondage was not based on student loans. Students were advised that the two-year J-1 program included scholarships to cover tuition. Housing and food would be free. They would be provided internships related to their field of study. They would work no more than 32 hours a week. The American education dream. The opportunity of a lifetime.
Then reality set in. The J-1 program participants found that their classes were limited to J-1 students. International students who came to the U.S. to study culinary arts and robotics were assigned jobs at Royal Canin (pet food factory) or Tur-Pak Foods (food packing plant). The workload was longer than 32 hours a week. These jobs had no educational value and were completely unrelated to the students’ intended fields of study. To make matters worse, the students claim that they were paid significantly less than U.S. employees. They also claim that money was deducted from their pay checks to fund kickbacks to the college and staffing agency.
In January 2020, the college issued a statement saying it had learned that students in the program were unhappy and blamed a “failure to clarify expectations” and “a breakdown in communication” for some of the problems. Not surprisingly, the J-1 visa program at Western Iowa Tech Community College ended. J-1 program participants now faced new challenges of remaining in the United States without housing or jobs. Many went home with the scars of exploitation. The American dream had vanished.
As of January 2021, eight students from Chile and eleven students from Brazil have filed federal lawsuits against the community college, recruiting company, and the two factories in Sioux City, Iowa. Both groups are suing for forced labor and trafficking and seeking damages. The second lawsuit seeks to require the college to make good on its promise to provide the students with an education.