Close intern program, U.S. urges

Foreign students pay firm for management training, are placed in menial jobs

May 16, 2002|By Walter F. Roche Jr. | Walter F. Roche Jr.,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - A State Department lawyer says a foreign exchange program that places students in menial jobs at hotels and resorts is inherently flawed and that there is no choice but to shut it down.

The lawyer, Carol B. Epstein, said officials of the American Hospitality Academy of Hilton Head, S.C., had pleaded for a chance to bring their program into compliance with the State Department's J-1 visa program, designed to foster educational exchanges that enable visitors to learn about the culture and values of Americans.

"It really isn't a program that could be worked with," Epstein said. "It's a program that is in violation and should be closed down.

"The [AHA] program boils down to a process of bringing in people from other countries to perform unskilled labor to get a minimal amount of training," she said. "They are working in unskilled jobs for less than the minimum wage."

Epstein made the remarks during her opening statement last week before a three-member State Department panel hearing AHA's appeal of the revocation of the for-profit company's right to sponsor visas for foreign residents. The May 7 session was closed to the public, but an AHA lawyer provided a transcript to The Sun.

Yesterday, the State Department agreed to allow public access to the rest of the hearing, bowing to a federal lawsuit filed by The Sun and the Orlando Sentinel the day the hearing began. The newspapers argued that the proceeding involved "matters of substantial public interest and concern" and that reporters had a "right to attend" under the First Amendment.

The hearing, which was expected to last three days, was suspended while a judge considered legal arguments. The State Department said yesterday that testimony is expected to resume next week.

The newspapers reported April 26 that AHA has brought about 2,000 foreigners to the United States over the past four years, placing them in low-level jobs in Florida and South Carolina that pay a $300-a-month stipend, the equivalent of $1.67 an hour for a 45-hour week. AHA also provides housing.

The students, who paid a fee of $1,000 each to AHA, were promised management training. Epstein said that while the students were getting some classroom training - about two hours a week - it had "absolutely no relation" to their work assignments. Those assignments range from checking in hotel guests to ridding boat docks of goose dung to entertaining resort guests and their children during "casino nights" featuring simulated gambling, the papers reported.

AHA's attorney, Laura F. Reiff, and AHA officials contend the firm is the victim of overzealous bureaucrats with a "gotcha mentality."

"We will show that AHA is a model hospitality training program," Reiff said, adding that many of the firm's competitors "don't even know where their interns are."

AHA officials dispute the State Department's characterization of the jobs the students hold as "unskilled." Literature handed to AHA students, who worked for such major employers as Marriott, Sheraton and Sea World, says: "There are no menial jobs. Just menial attitudes."

Epstein said that AHA had broken about 20 J-1 program rules, though some of the violations were minor.

She cited a memo sent by AHA to some interns in June, warning of disciplinary action if the trainees did not immediately turn in an official form issued by U.S. immigrations. The memo was cited as evidence of violations of law and regulations after State Department investigators made a surprise on-site inspection of AHA's program late last year.

AHA officials say they had no idea that it was against the law to collect the immigration form, known formally as an IAP-66.

Under questioning by Epstein, two AHA officials repeatedly denied that the intent of collecting the forms, a practice since discontinued, was to keep trainees from leaving the program. Instead, they said, they were concerned that crucial documents might be lost or misplaced.

"In my wildest dreams, I had no idea that it was illegal," testified Scott Anthony, AHA's director of training and a former trainee. "We thought we were doing a good thing."

Anthony told the panel that the foreign interns were "highly motivated. They're brilliant. They've got a lot to offer the industry."

Anthony's comments were backed by current AHA trainees, including one who said he was so pleased with the opportunities provided by the program that he routinely showed up for work two or three hours before his shift.

"I don't have any complaints about AHA," said Oscar Martina de la Mora of Mexico. "I really have enjoyed my time here."

Anthony attributed the State Department inquiry to the complaints of two trainees from Thailand who he said repeatedly failed to show up for mandatory classroom sessions, despite written and verbal warnings.

"They missed week after week," Anthony said. He said AHA was in the process of kicking the two Thai students out when State Department officials intervened and "strong armed" the firm into reinstating them.

Cindi Reiman, AHA's owner and president, described the reinstatement order as a "horrible humiliation" and said it was "very evident" that the State Department's surprise visit late last year "was not to find a fair report" on her company.

"It turned our operation upside down," she told the panel.

Reiman is scheduled to undergo cross-examination by State Department attorneys when the hearings resume.

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