One of the nation's leading civil rights groups say participants of a foreign exchange program in Mississippi are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. MPB's Paul Boger reports.
In 2011, Christian Llontop came to Mississippi from Peru as part of a foreign exchange program to learn more about U-S culture. However, Llontop says he learned a completely different kind of lesson.
"I thought I was going to work for the hotel, but when I got to Biloxi they told me I was going to work for a sub-contractor inside the resort." Llontop said through an interpreter. "The housekeeping job was very hard, and we barely survived from the pay. The sub-contractor also rented us an apartment where we had to live. Four students lived in the apartment and the boss charged each of us $300 per month for rent. [It] barely had any furniture or anything, and the bed had fleas."
Llontop's experience is not unique. According to a report released by the Southern Poverty Law Center, foreign college students signing up for the U-S State Departments cultural exchange program are actually being brought into Mississippi and other states as a source of cheap labor.
Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance Executive Director Bill Chandler has had experience dealing with exploitation of foreign exchange participants. He said the state has no little to no legal power to help those being exploited under the exchange program.
"In the past we've tried to get local law enforcement involved when there has been exploitation, but more often than not there is no response." said Chandler.
SPLC attorney Meredith Stewart says they are looking toward leaders in Washington to make sure students are not being taken advantage of.
"We think congress needs to take a serious look at these programs and asses whether they're actually meeting the goals of cultural exchange." said Stewart. "If they're not then needs to be serious reforms to make sure that they are truly cultural exchange programs and not low-wage work programs."
A spokesperson with the State Department says the agency has made a number of improvements to the program which include stricter regulations on sponsors. Companies found guilty of exploiting participants will sanctioned and removed from the program, and in some cases handed over to the U-S Justice Department.