PANAMA CITY- Students from other countries come to the area to work and travel as part of the J-1 Visa Exchange Visitor Program. While new State Department regulations are better protecting these students, local businesses don't have to pay payroll taxes for them, amounting to cheap labor. That makes them some of the most vulnerable workers in our area.
These J-1 Visa students from Ecuador have high hopes for their time in the U.S., participating in a Summer Work Travel program in Northwest Florida. "I'm excited to be here because this is a whole new experience for me," said student Saul Bacheco. Students are recruited by a sponsor who procures a J-1 Visa for them and lines up a job in the area, often in grocery stores, or restaurants. "I want to travel around the most places I can visit and I want to improve my English," said student Ariana Bravo.
Their experience begins with an orientation, and a safety presentation by local law enforcement. Why? "J-1 Visa students are probably among our most exploited individuals on the beach. We kept seeing such a large number of problems here with the J-1 community, not with the students, but with the students being exploited by egregious employers," said Scott Springer, the Resident Agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations. That's why Agent Springer approached several J-1 Visa program sponsors, including Worldwide Cultural Exchange, and offered to host a session with local law enforcement and victim's advocate agencies.
"A big part of my presentation, 75%, involves human trafficking, sex trafficking, and what are the indicators. And what should you do if you see that. We want them to feel comfortable with talking to us, that is our best source of information when trying to find out where this kind of activity is occurring," said Agent Springer. "Taking away that fear is huge. That way they can reach out and talk to us and make things easier," said Glenn Eckhardt, the chair of the Northwest Florida Human Trafficking Coalition.
Worldwide Cultural Exchange Vice President Michele Martinez says she's glad to have the safety presentation part of the orientation. "Their safety is our number one priority. And inviting the police department to our orientations really allows us to take a proactive approach and ensures we can keep them safe while they are here in the U.S." So why recruit students from other parts of the world to work here in Bay County? Officials say local businesses rely on them as a labor source. And they perform jobs others in the area don't want. "It's beneficial for the area because it brings in a surplus of workers who are willing to do jobs that a lot of times other folks aren't interested in doing," said Agent Springer.
The Southern Poverty Law Center recently published a scathing report saying the J-1 Visa program is being "hijacked by employers and used as a source of cheap labor." Our area is not immune to that. "Businesses who want to take advantage of a student, they do it in various ways. They pay them less than they would normally pay another worker, in some instances they pay them less than minimum wage. In some instances they try to hire them through a contractor. We see a lot of labor violations intertwined with potential trafficking activities, right here in Panama City," said Springer.
That's why educating these student is so important. "It's our responsibility to take care of them, because they came here legally, like their sponsors are responsible for taking care of them, we have to make sure they are not exploited or taken advantage of as well." Springer says if you are concerned someone may be getting exploited, call 866-DHS-2-ICE, that's 866-347-2423.