Students left adrift in U.S., without jobs

"Scandal": For many Eastern European students, an expected summer of jobs and travel in America has become a scramble to find shelter and support.

August 10, 2002|By Walter F. Roche Jr. | Walter F. Roche Jr.,SUN STAFF

MILWAUKEE - Victoria Kordus was in surgical scrubs, about to assist with an operation, when the anesthesiologist mentioned to her that dozens of Polish students had been left stranded on the streets here after the summer jobs they had been promised suddenly vanished.

So Kordus, a surgical technician whose two youngest children had just gone off on their own, tracked down some of the students and opened the door of her modest bungalow to them. First there were eight; then suddenly there were a dozen, four of whom had been living in a car.

"I told them if they didn't mind sleeping on the floor, they were welcome," Kordus said. It just kind of worked out, she said, with the boys in one room and the girls in another. They even slept in shifts when things got too crowded.

The scene was replicated in other households around this Midwestern city.

In the suburb of Wauwatosa, Diane Fowler, whose daughter had just left for military basic training, took in five Polish students. Others found temporary refuge with other families and in college dormitories vacated for the summer.

The young Poles who arrived here are among dozens of students recruited from Eastern Europe to work in America this summer - from Maryland to Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming to California - under the J-1 visa program, a work/travel program overseen by the U.S. State Department and designed to encourage cultural exchange.

They paid up to $2,000 in airfare and fees, only to find that the promises of well-paying summer employment and a place to stay didn't materialize.

"This is becoming a national scandal," said Les Kuczynski, executive director of the Polish American Congress in Chicago, who rattled off a list of a half-dozen locations where students have been stranded.

"You can't have this going on unregulated," he added. "The greed factor had a lot to do with it. People just saw dollar signs. It snowballed out of control."

In Harford County, a group of Poles and Slovaks were assigned to work at McDonald's restaurants upon arrival. But they received no money for their first days on the job because their $8-an-hour wages were offset by high apartment rental charges deducted directly from their paychecks.

On Thursday, U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, asked the State Department to investigate the treatment of the McDonald's workers, who were recruited by a contractor, Donna Maertens of Stafford, Va. The company, which was renting a two-bedroom apartment to five students for $2,000 a month - nearly triple the usual rate - says it is working to address the complaints.

In other cases, such as here in Wisconsin, arriving students found no work at all and had no place to stay.

Among the recruiters involved is David C. Marzano, who has a history of skirting immigration laws to import workers and is due to begin a 15-month jail term Aug. 27.

Marzano, who said he brought several hundred students to the United States this summer, pleaded guilty in federal court in Atlanta on July 26 to a charge of conspiring to unlawfully encourage and induce aliens to reside in the United States. Prosecutors charged that he placed his recruits in jobs at hotels and resort areas across the country.

His company, Global Staffing, and a related company were found guilty of similar charges and fined a total of $81,000.

Among the students he recruited was Karol Frankiewicz, 23, a computer science student from Poland. After landing in New York, he received an e-mail from two of his friends, telling him that the jobs already had been filled.

"He [Marzano] told them he hired too many people," Frankiewicz said.

Marzano, in a telephone interview, denied that any job recruits had been turned away and said that in fact he didn't have enough recruits to fill all the available jobs. He said the immigration violations for which he was convicted did not involve students or the J-1 program, under which students are permitted to work here for three months and travel for another month.

"We made a mistake," Marzano said of the criminal case.

After hearing that Global Staffing had no jobs, Frankiewicz said, he joined up with his friends in Chicago. Eventually, after four weeks of searching and with some assistance from relatives, he and his friends found construction jobs that pay about $8 an hour.

Marzano's firm was able to recruit the students under visas issued through a nonprofit firm, the Council for Educational Travel-USA. Officials of the firm, based in Seattle, said they had no idea of Marzano's legal problems.

"It's news to me," said Kevin Watson, director of special programs for the organization. He said the council didn't deal directly with Global but worked through an intermediary in Poland, International Student Employment Services.

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