Foreign students mistreated in Myrtle Beach, group says

In its complaint to the State Department, the Southern Poverty Law Center said 11 students from the Dominican Republic and Jamaica paid thousands of dollars each in travel and fees to work in Myrtle Beach this summer. Associated Press/File

A company in Myrtle Beach and two international recruiters promised 11 foreign students chances to work in the United States and experience American culture but instead shopped them around to hotels to do grueling housekeeping and laundry jobs, the Southern Poverty Law Center says in a new federal complaint.

“I borrowed a lot of money to spend the summer experiencing America,” said Nicolas Florentino, an accounting student from the Dominican Republic mentioned in the complaint. “Instead, I am doing exhausting work as a housekeeper and I’m not getting any cultural exchange. I would not have come here if I knew this would be my experience. I was deceived and used.”

Florentino is among the more than 90,000 students who come to the United States every year on temporary J-1 visas. Administered by the State Department, the long-running program was created to foster good will between the United States and other countries.

But critics, such as the Southern Poverty Law Center, have said the visa program has become a form of cheap seasonal labor for U.S. employers, and that lax regulation by the State Department has led to abuse.

In its complaint to the State Department, the Southern Poverty Law Center said 11 students from the Dominican Republic and Jamaica paid thousands of dollars each in travel and fees to work in Myrtle Beach this summer.

The students paid money to two sponsors, American Work Adventures and International Exchange of North America. The complaint said these sponsors then used Grandeur Management to manage the students’ stays. On its website, Grandeur Management describes itself as one of the Grand Strand’s leading providers of laundry management and other services for hotels.

But when the students arrived this summer, Grandeur Management placed the students in a run-down motel with a history of housing citations, the group’s complaint said. The motel charged each of them $90 per week in rent. Eight students were placed in a small bed-bug-infested unit with one bathroom.

One of the students, Ana Cabrera, said her sponsor promised a job in “food sales” at Ricciardi’s Italian Ice in Myrtle Beach, but when she arrived, she was told her job wasn’t available.

After four days without work, she was placed in a hotel as a housekeeper for a day, then moved to another hotel two days later, and after that, to a laundry job at Bermuda Sands hotel. She thought working conditions there were unhealthy, so she found a job on her own at a Krispy Kreme, the group said.

Scott Curry of International Exchange of North America said the “health, safety and welfare of our participants is our primary concern. We’re looking into the complaint and we’ll act on it.” Officials with Grandeur Management, American Work Adventures were not immediately available.

The State Department is working with the sponsors to assess the situation, spokesman Nathan Arnold said. “We take these complaints very seriously.” Since 2011, the department has more than doubled its staff that oversees visitor exchange programs. But to effectively monitor the program, “we need participants to inform us of health, safety and welfare concerns.” The department’s number for complaints is 866-283-9090.

The Southern Poverty Law Center also said the students received less money than they should have been paid under federal guidelines.

“These students came here to experience America,” said Meredith Stewart, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center. “Unfortunately, when they return to their home countries they will only have stories about our nation’s appetite for cheap, vulnerable labor and the people willing to hijack a federal program to get it.”

Tony Bartelme can be reached at 843-937-5554