Few Rules Protect Young Foreign Students in U.S.


July 5, 2006  2:52 PM ET

Heard on Morning Edition


[Jason Ryu with the Myers family] 

Jason Ryu, a Korean exchange student, finally found a welcoming home with the Myers family of Quakertown, Pa. Four months after he got there, the USA program kicked him out of the country.

Courtesy Melissa Myers

Rules for Studying Stateside Most foreign students who study in the United States enter through one of two visa programs: the J-1 or the F-1. Below, an overview of each type of visa and its requirements and protections:
J-1 Visas
The J-1 cultural-exchange program originated during the Cold War, the brainchild of Sen. J. William Fulbright. The Arkansas educator-turned-politican thought it would promote peace to have educational and cultural exchanges between the people of the United States and the people of other countries.
Jason Ryu and Jessica Cho were among the roughly 30,000 foreign high-school students who enter the United States each year on a J-1 cultural-exchange program.
Those programs are licensed and governed by the U.S. State Department. About 130 sponsors are licensed to run them. Until this spring, USA United Students Association was one of those sponsors.
Stanley Colvin directs the J-1 cultural-exchange programs. He says the State Department receives about 100 complaints a year about foreign-exchange programs at the high-school level. Most don't require government intervention.
Under the J-1 program, high school students are allowed to stay in the country for one academic year. Their sponsors are required to follow rules designed to protect national security and the safety and welfare of the youngest visitors.
Those rules include screening and background checks of host families, to ensure young students aren't placed with criminals or sex offenders. Programs must also secure enrollment in accredited public schools before the student leaves home.
F-1 Visas
The F-1 visa program is strictly for study — not cultural exchange. F-1 visas are best known as the visas many foreigners use to study in U.S. colleges and universities.
What is less known is that high-school students may also use F-1 visas. This year, 19,500 students were in the United States on F-1 visas. The Department of Homeland Security regulates the visas.
Some of those students were living with relatives; others were in private boarding schools. Still others were in private schools without campuses — some of them unaccredited schools.
The rules for F-1 visas are designed to ensure students' families have the money and resources to support the student while they are in America. Unlike the J-1 program, the F-1 visas don't have rules to protect young students who are here on their own.
High-school students who are in the U-S on F-1 visas may stay for one year if they are enrolled in public school. But if they are attending private school, they may stay as long as they remain enrolled in that school.
High-school students on F-1 visas who graduate may stay in the United States if they enroll in college. — Libby Lewis

An 'Embarrassment' to the State Department

In April, the State Department informed USA United Students Association Inc. that it was asked to give up its license to bring over cultural-exchange students because of acts that brought the program "notoriety or disrepute."

Read the State Department's Letter to USA

Every year, tens of thousands of teenagers from around the globe come to the United States to live and learn. Most go home with positive memories of America.

Then there's the sad story of Jason Ryu of South Korea, who found himself shunted from home to home before getting kicked out of the United States. Or Jessica Cho, also of South Korea, who was left stranded in a hotel room for a month.

Such cases prompted the U.S. State Department to strip a private program of its license to bring cultural-exchange students over to America. That program was meant to help improve America's image abroad. But USA United Students Association Inc. plans to use other means to keep bringing foreign students into the country regardless.

Dallas-based USA is one of dozens of nonprofit groups working with recruiters overseas to find homes and schools in the United States for foreign students, whose families can pay thousands of dollars for the privilege. The Ryus spent $20,000 for their son's stay in the United States.

Yet when Jason, then 16, arrived in the United States last August, he found he didn't have a host family. The agency found him one — 10 days later. According to Stanley Colvin, a government official who oversees the cultural-exchange programs, that was a direct violation of State Department policy.

"The first rule [is] you must have a host-family placement before the student arrives," Colvin says.

Marooned Without Hope

Jessica Cho says she and dozens of students spent weeks in a Dallas hotel last year before USA found them host families. In her case, it was 31 days. At 16, she says, she was the oldest of the group. One girl was 14.

"We had no hope," Cho says. "Every day, every morning, we expected a call" about a host family.

Cho eventually was placed in a host home. So was Ryu — not in Maine, as he'd originally been told, but in Allentown, Pa.

Ryu says his host family didn't cook or clean; the house was dirty and flea-ridden. He was often left alone.

"I was homesick," Ryu says. "I felt depressed, sad."

On top of that, Ryu — who says he was told he would attend public school — was instead placed in a private, unaccredited Christian school. USA threatened to return Ryu to Korea if his parents didn't pay the tuition. That was another violation of State Department policy, Colvin says.

USA told Ryu it was his fault he wasn't fitting in with his host family. But after about a month, the agency did move him; he wound up at the house of Melissa Myers in Quakertown, Pa. There, Ryu says he finally felt welcome.

"The kids were friendly," Ryu says. "It felt like family, a peaceful and happy atmosphere."
He was happy for four months. Then, USA learned that Myers had filed a complaint with the State Department about how the agency had treated Jason Ryu and other students. Soon after, Jason was forced to leave the country.

Colvin says the State Department receives about 100 complaints each year from the nearly 30,000 high-school students who come to the United States as exchange students annually. Most complaints don't require the government to step in. This one did.

A Program of 'Notoriety'

In mid-April, the State Department asked USA to surrender its license to run a cultural-exchange program. USA complied on April 24. Four days later, USA expelled Jason Ryu from America.

"I felt like a criminal," Ryu recalls. "I felt like I was getting arrested. They kept on telling me to go home."

A government review, dated April 6 and addressed to the company's executive director, concluded that USA's actions had brought the State Department's exchange program "into notoriety or disrepute." It asked USA to withdraw its license to spare the government "further embarrassment."

USA complied. Yet despite that loss of license, USA still calls itself a student-exchange program. But it's now relying on another visa program to bring in foreign students — one that offers no State Department protections. They're called F1 visas, and they are regulated by the Department of Homeland Security.

F1 visas were once the province of wealthy high-school students attending boarding schools or living with relatives. But the documents are now popular with middle-class families from emerging economies who send their children to study in America, seeking a competitive edge.

A growing number of schools want to tap that market, which might mean more business for groups such as USA.

Calls for Stronger Protections

Chris Bentley, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, says students who come to the States on an F1 visa are required to prove they can support themselves. Beyond that, he says, it's up to the parents back home to make sure their child is all right.

Bentley says there's no evidence USA has broken any of Homeland Security's rules. But Lori Saldana, a California lawmaker from San Diego, says those rules aren't good enough. She's sponsored a bill that would force all foreign-student programs to run detailed background checks on host families in her


"I've heard stories of these students being subjected to what is almost indentured servitude," Saldana says. "And they're told that's just the way it is in the U.S. They may not have the cultural awareness to challenge being used as a housekeeper or nanny. We want to make sure none of those abuses are taking place."
Myers, the host mother who took in Jason Ryu, says she, too, believes young foreign students need stronger protections.

"There are kids coming here, and they pretty much don't have a voice," Myers says. "Nobody listens to what they have to say." And to her, that's not what America is about.

Related NPR StoriesU.S. to Screen Exchange Host FamiliesAug. 12, 2005
Fulbright Scholars Discuss Time in AfricaJune 22, 2006

Web Resources  Committee for Safety of Foreign Exchange Students

Council on Standards for International Educational Travel


Minnesota Deputy Secretary of State Interviewed by Don Shelby of WCCO-TV to Discuss Laws Established to Protect Children

SHELBY: These stories keep popping up. Both in the Minneapolis Star Tribune we’ve read about it and we are reading about it today from the Associated Press. And the list is just incredible.  The number of children who are being placed as foreign exchange students in homes that have not been really vetted or the people are taking money from the children. Getting a bad impression of what is going on in the uh United States. I don’t like that. I don’t like that — I like people who visit, especially these young people, come away thinking yeah, this is the greatest country in the world. I’m a… I’m a patriot along those lines. Jim Gelbmann is the Deputy Secretary of State. A bill is awaiting approval here in Minnesota that would investigate and terminate registrations of organizations that don’t meet uh standards set by the State. Mr. Gelbmann, welcome to the program.

GELBMANN: Thank you very much, Don, it’s a great pleasure to be on your program and I am very interested in talking about the subject. It’s one near and dear to my heart as well.

SHELBY: Good. How did it become near and dear to your heart, Jim?

GELBMANN: I actually one night I received a phone call from a parent in the Norwood Young America area. Ah, somehow she got my cell phone number. And, well, didn’t have any resources at my hand, but she was very fran –frantic, she was not only a parent, she was a teacher at Norwood Young America, and she told me a story about a specific uh, boy, who was from – or young adult I should say, who was from Norway, and um, was having a horrible experience in a foreign exchange program, a specific foreign exchange program. The boy was initially placed in one home that… after I did some research and checking, the Norwood, — The Carver County Sheriff Department, one of the deputies there said that the home that this boy was placed in, in the family was in dire final trouble and the home was in disrepair and he did not feel it was a home that was suitable for placement of a foreign exchange student. Ah, the boy was taken out of that home and then taken to one of the coordinators houses uh for the specific program, and which is actually against US law; for a coordinator to actually host a foreign exchange student that she is a coordinator for. Uh, the more I investigated, the more concerned I became abut this specific organization. And I found out that this was not an isolated incident that this appeared to be a systemic problem with a number of school districts. Um, I received complaints from a number of Wright – Wright County school districts, Montecello, uh, Waverly, um… Buffalo I know has terminated their involvement with this specific program and I started to look to see what we could do about it. Um, and at that time when I look at Minnesota law, the law and I’ll read it to you said, «The Secretary of State may upon receipt of a complaint regarding an international student exchange organization, report the matter to the organization involved, the United States Information Agency or the Council on Standards for International Education Travel as the Secretary of State as considers appropriate.

SHELBY: — only — only requiring the Secretary of State to report, — but take no action —

GELBMANN: … and it’s not required to report, it just says may report.

SHELBY: May report, we have to be careful about this shall report and may report are two different things entirely. So it looks like somebody along the line in the state legislature had come up with an idea or whether it was the Secretary of State that promulgated a resolution that got into the state legislature that someone had some concerns, but it appears that without your help and without the help of the legislature now, that there is no affirmative action that could be taken by the Secretary of State. Uh, what do you hope to accomplish? What would the Secretary of State do if they run into situations like you have discovered not only this one case, but the many others that have come to your attention since then? And let me just for the record, is it CETUSA is this organization? —

GELBMANN: That is correct.

SHELBY: Ok, alright. And I just want to make sure that people understand what CETUSA is, if you hear from them for instance. It’s the Council for Educational Travel USA, the Council for Educational Travel USA, and currently these people have our eyebrows raised about what there are going on and whether there are home visits and whether these individuals who are taking on foreign exchange students are actually fit to do so. What would your legislation produce?

GELBMANN: Well, Don, actually, I have some very good news. We did bring the legislation, that was Mark Ritchie, who brought the legislation after my initial investigations finding that this issue was more systemic than it was an isolated incident. We brought it to the legislature and it was very late in the legislative session, it was passed all committee deadlines and the like, but I talked to Representative Phyllis Kahn and told her about the problem. I showed her a letter that I received from a foreign exchange student, a different foreign exchange student who actually was experiencing sexual abuse by her uh family that she was initially placed with who at least in her opinion it was sex abuse. And Phyllis Kahn was willing to place it in what what was called a State Government Omnibus Bill. Language that would, first of all have had to first of all, o change the name of the report the United States Information Agency no longer exists –

SHELBY: Right, the USIA is gone.

GELBMANN: That is correct. It is the — the responsibilities have been transferred to the Office of Exchange Coordination and Designation in the United States Department of State, so we had to change that reference. But then the most important change we received is we received the language that says that the Secretary may also investigate complaints received under this section to determine if the complaint is limited to one high school or if there are systematic problems with placements made by a particular organization. The Secretary of State may terminate and organization’s registration —

SHELBY: There you go –

GELBMANN: — if the Secretary determines the organization has failed to remain in compliance with local, state and federal statutes, rules and regulations.

SHELBY: How soon will you take advantage of this once it is completely signed, sealed and delivered — to take action?

GELBMANN: Well, it became effective July 1.

SHELBY: Signed by the Governor?

GELBMANN: Signed by the Governor.

SHELBY: Alright, good, so, now how many agents do you have to hire to try to get all of this done?

GELBMANN: Well, as you know, we are in a budget crises.

SHELBY: I do know that —

GELBMANN: Unfortunately, we weren’t given any additional funds to take this out and carry this legislation out. But I assured the legislature in front of the committee, I said, even if I have to work over time I don’t want people leaving Minnesota going back to their home country with a negative impression of our state —

SHELBY: You and I agree –

GELBMANN: — Or, worse yet, horrible experience you know within our state I want them to go back and talk about the wonderful experience they had. I wrote back to this one foreign exchange student that wrote this letter to me and I… you know, I said to her I said this should have been the best year of your life, the best year of your educational life I was would hope would have been in Minnesota would have been your high school senior year, and I really regret it and I was very apologetic that it was not the best year of her life. It was uh, traumatic year for her. And I didn’t want that to happen again. And, so, um, again, I’m working right now with CETUSA. Um, one part of the problem, if we totally revoke their license, there’s a lot of foreign exchange students that have made plans through CETUSA to come to Minnesota um, I just want to make sure…I use this legislation more as a club than actually revoking registrations.

SHELBY: Understood. You’re a good man, Jim Gelbmann. Jim Gelbmann is Deputy Secretary of State and he has worked tirelessly to try to get the state to change its regulations, policies and laws regarding the foreign exchange student program in the state of Minnesota. And there has been a company CETUSA, C-E-T-U-S-A and you may see that from time to time you might even get some queries from the Council for Educational Travel USA. Back in the day when I was in high school, there was nothing more fabulous than foreign exchange students coming in an bring their knowledge of their own country and telling us about that and then learning about America and helping us teach. And then I’ve run into some of them in later years and they would say it was the greatest experience I’ve ever had in my life. Here in Minnesota, we are the host to lots of them because we’re a very open state and we want to be a part of that process but it doesn’t always turn out well because the companies that are looking for these families apparently, apparently, are not doing a very good job of screening them, we’ve got lists, and lists and lists if you’ve been listening to the program, we’re talking about sex abuse, we talking pornography, we talking about convicts, we’re talking about taking of money from these individuals, that is not the kind of impression that I as an American want to leave on a young person, or any person whatsoever who comes to our country to visit and then goes back home and says they never want to go back to that place again; they’re terrible, terrible people Jim Gelbmann and I agree on that sort of soft element of that legislation. The hard element of course is making sure that these companies don’t have a right to operate if they’re not doing it right in this state of Minnesota. The good news is that Jim has told us, it has been signed by the Governor which is now a matter of law in the state of Minnesota. As you looked around, you said you began investigating one case, but then you soon realized there were a lot more cases out there. Can you talk about a few of those?

GELBAMANN: Sure, Don. Probably the most common problem that happened with the CETUSA organization in multiple high schools throughout the state is that they would bring more students over to Minnesota than they had families to place them in. And, again, that is against the federal regulations, as well. Federal law requires the organization to have us signed contract with a host family one month before the student arrives in the States. And what would regularly happen is CETUSA would have three or four host families signed up for a specific school and five or six students would be bought over, and then CETUSA would frantically search for host families for the students. In one case that was documented actually WCCO TV a number of years ago, I think back in 2006 um, one CETUSA organization uh, uh, coordinator had six students student living in her basement, had six foreign exchange students living in her basement because she couldn’t find host families for them —

SHELBY: And that is violation of law –

GELBMANN: And that is a violation of law right then and there.

SHELBY: Okay now, let me ask you, do the host families, are they paid by CETUSA?

GELBMANN: No, they are not. They are volunteer families that want to you know, bring in a student give a student a good opportunity to see what America is like and also for the host families the to learn about the culture that the, of the country that the student comes from.

SHELBY: I am sometimes given to overstate hyperbally, but this seems to be that that all the money is ending up in CETUSA’s hands, their dumping these kids without uh, doing the due diligence of finding good families that are willing to take them. And I’m willing to call this human trafficking. Some people have called it, as we just talked to Danielle Grijalva, Grijalva, the director and founder of the Committee for Safety of Foreign Exchange Students, who said it’s, one senator called it a Puppy Mill. And, uh, is there any action can be taken other than regulatory uh, against these companies when they are found to have failed in their process, is this misfeasants, malfeasants or is it nonfeasants?

GELBMANN: Uh, again, I’m not an attorney so I wouldn’t know which category it falls into, but what I do know is that Minnesota now has the authority that if they violate state, federal or local law, and there’s very explicit federal laws governing how foreign exchange programs work, if they violate those laws, we have the authority to revoke their registration. And in Minnesota, if uh, a foreign exchange program is not registered with
the Secretary of State’s office, the Department of Education will not pay the per student aide uh, formula to that school district. So, basically, it will end their involvement with Minnesota school districts in Minnesota because Minnesota school districts again will need that additional aide when they accept these students from around the world.

SHELBY: I think I know my audience well enough to say that I speak for them in this particular case, to say, go ’em Jim Gelbmann. Don’t let ’em get away with this and protect our reputation and protect the children. And uh, thank you for fighting for this legislation, and I appreciate you being on the program with us today, Jim.

GELBMANN: Well, thank you, Don. And I assure you that uh this issue is very close and near and dear to my heart —

SHELBY: — I know it is.

GELBMANN: — and I’m going to take uh the responsibility that the legislature has given us very seriously.

SHELBY: I appreciate it, Jim, thank you very much for being with us.   

GELBMANN: Thank you, Don.

SHELBY: Okay, bye bye, Jim Gelbmann, Deputy to the Secretary of State.