SIOUX CITY, Iowa (KCAU) – Several students enrolled in an international studies program at Western Iowa Tech Community College (WIT) said they were misled by the school, while an eastern Iowa grassroots organization dedicated to community organizing is going so far as to call the situation a case of human trafficking.
Students from Chile and Brazil are enrolled at WIT as part of a cultural exchange program through the U.S. State Department program. As part of the program, the students discussed their concerns, saying guidelines for the program have changed, specifically internships at local food processing companies, Tur-Pak and Royal Canin.
“[They] never gave us choice, and in Brazil, they told us that our work would be related to what we were studying here,” said Brazilian student Antonio Diego.
Western Iowa Tech Vice President of Finance and Administrative Services Troy Jasmen confirms that the internships ended. He says the State Department notified the college that the internships didn’t provide a broad enough experience for students.
Jasman says the college has held at least two meetings with students to address their concerns, and that allegations that students are now being required to find jobs and pay their own way are false.
“I guess the college was blind-sided by this as far as this allegation because that was so far from the truth. Western Iowa Tech has always been there for our students, provided opportunity, and this is certainly is something that has caught us as a surprise,” he said.
Jasman also said the college first learned of State Department concerns in October or November and that the college is working to find new internships that would allow the students to remain enrolled.
“If we can’t get them in an internship program, then we’re not in the State [Department’s] requirements and they would have to at that point return home,” said Jasman.
The students are required to have internships as part of the J1 visas program and that the State Department has given the college until the end of January to rectify the issue, otherwise students would be required to return to their home countries.
An attorney representing J&L Staffing said the company assisted the students in lining up their internships and that they complied with the law. She says the students signed a contract where they agreed to have a portion of their $15 per hour wages taken to help offset the costs of the program.
The attorney added that it would be wrong for anyone to characterize this situation as human trafficking.
Below is the full release from the Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement with the allegations:
Fifty-seven international students studying at a state technical college in Sioux City are being exploited in school and on the job after being lured to Iowa under false pretenses by public and private recruiters, according to eleven of the directly impacted people going public with the allegations.
Trafficking in Persons (TIP), otherwise known as human trafficking, is the trade of humans for forced labor, modern-day slavery. TIP is illegal under Iowa, federal, and international law.
The international students say they were brought to Sioux City as part of a cultural exchange on J1 Visas to study culinary arts for two years at Western Iowa Tech Community College. A local subcontractor and temp agency named J&L Staffing flew to Brazil and Chile with school officials to recruit the students. Prospects were promised free tuition, housing, food, job training, and job placement in their field of study.
But after the incoming class of international students signed up, they suddenly found themselves on the hook for thousands of dollars in hidden recruitment fees. Their two year degree plans were changed to one year diplomas, and their specialized internships turned out to be mandatory, full-time jobs for $7.25 an hour at giant food manufacturers like Tur-Pak and Royal Canin.
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.
Promises of free food did not include a sanctioned meal plan in the college cafeteria and turned out to be nothing more than sporadic $50 gift cards to Wal-Mart.
Email correspondence between the school administration and the students last summer show that officials knew the entire program was potentially illegal from the start.
The Iowa Department of Education identified major flaws with the school’s planned use of the J1 Visas to fill a worker shortage in the Sioux City-area, but the changes the school made to try and cover it all up were cosmetic and just a few weeks before the Fall semester started. None of the principal actors, their roles, or the basic plan changed, only the way the paperwork was worded and written.
In November, after some of the international students began filing complaints and the legality of the program was questioned, the school canceled all 57 internships and began demanding repayment of education and housing expenses. School officials are currently threatening the entire group of J1 Visa students with expulsion and deportation if they don’t re-enroll this semester under the same exploitative conditions.
Those that have re-enrolled for Spring 2020 do not have school-sponsored internships, cannot work legally in the United States, and are being assessed full tuition, housing, and school fees.
Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (Iowa CCI) and Catholic Worker House members both released statements supporting the international student workers.
“This sounds like modern day slavery, complete with a company store in the company town – and it’s outrageous that this is happening at a state community college with companies doing business in Iowa,” said Tom Mohan, a Sioux City area resident and Iowa CCI board president. “We demand an end to this exploitation with no evictions, no debt, and no deportations.”
“Western Iowa Tech Community College, J&L Services, Tur-Pak, and Royal Canin must all be held accountable for potential human trafficking crimes and we call on Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, Attorney General Tom Miller, and U.S. Senators Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst to open an independent and transparent investigation into this situation immediately,” said Catholic Worker Maureen Vasile of Coralville, Iowa.
Immigrants who are the victims of crimes are eligible to apply for special visas and, after four years, permanent residency in the United States.
KCAU 9 is continuing to look into the claims and will update as we learn more.