By Sonia Moghe | Posted: Monday, August 28, 2006 12:00 am | My Plainview
MANSFIELD, Texas — South Korean student Jun Young Kim simply wanted to go to a public high school in America and practice English with friends.
But when he got to America, after his family paid nearly $13,000 to get him into a cultural exchange program, the 16-year-old found that he could not attend a local public school as promised. Then he learned he had to pay even more money to attend a private school.
“I don’t know why they need money like that much,” said Kim, whose stay with a Pennsylvania family ended in May. “I thought this money is for a host family, but they don’t get any money. And what is that money for? School is free, and room is free. That’s ridiculous.”
Kim’s case, involving a Texas exchange program, is one of several examples of programs failing to make the most basic arrangements for students. While most of the 111 U.S. exchange programs report no such problems, the Department of State has ordered a halt to a handful of programs that have left students stuck in hotels or otherwise in limbo.
“When these exchange programs operate under sloppiness and greed, that’s when these accidents can happen and that’s why they do,” said Danielle Grijalva, who once placed exchange students in homes for a Texas-based exchange program but is now director of a watchdog group that looks out for the safety of the students.
Some cases of foreign exchange student abuse with other programs have surfaced in recent years, including one involving Paul Stone of Berea, Ky., who pleaded guilty in April to sodomizing a 15-year-old Taiwanese girl his family hosted.
“Students arriving without homes, forced to live in basements, placed in homes of convicted felons and registered sex offenders is not cultural exchange,” Grijalva said.
In Kim’s case, Mansfield-based United Students Association Inc., a Christian cultural exchange program, had not officially secured a public school for Kim in Allentown, Pa.
The program is one of five U.S. high school programs that have been told by the State Department to withdraw their exchange visitor program designations in recent years.
Moacir Rodrigues, executive director of USA Inc., said the few instances where students were left without homes or schools were due to extreme circumstances and rarely happen.
“Families change their minds – it happens all the time,” he said. “This is a minority of cases.”
Rodrigues also said the group has little control over the final fee charged to students in the program. He said USA Inc. only charged between $3,500 and $3,850 in the past two years for the program, but representatives in 29 countries can charge whatever commission they please.
“I don’t see and I don’t know how much people charge,” he said. “They don’t spend it with me.”
Until earlier this year, Rodrigues brought in thousands of students using J-1 visas, which are issued as part of the Department of State’s exchange visitor program. Organizations that bring students to the U.S. through this program are monitored by the State Department.
In April, the State Department revoked USA Inc.’s designation that allowed it to bring in foreign students with J-1 visas because the program did not meet required standards. Stanley Colvin, who directs the exchange coordination and designation program for the State Department, said the program left several students living in hotels without host families or schools for weeks.
By the end of August, USA Inc. planned to bring in about 80 students by using F-1 visas, which are issued by the Department of Homeland Security and do not require students to have housing or schools set up prior to arriving in the U.S.
Colvin said USA Inc. also failed to have adequately trained staff.
Rodrigues would not go into specifics about how he trains his staff, who help him place students with host families, but said that he trusts them.
“They’re all Christians,” he said. “They’re all fine.”
Barbara Phillips, Kim’s host mother in Pennsylvania, said USA Inc. staff called her using her church’s member directory and asked if they could be a host family just days before he arrived in the U.S. Phillips said she was given 24 hours to make a decision.
“Right from the start I was skeptical about how legitimate they were,” she said. “It almost looks like they’re going from church to church recruiting families that way.”
Tina Sweet, a program development director in the Allentown area who called Phillips, said she only uses church directories with permission from the churches.