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Few Rules Protect Young Foreign Students in U.S.

Every year, tens of thousands of teenagers from around the globe come to the United States to live and learn. Most go home with positive memories of America.

Then there's the sad story of Jason Ryu of South Korea, who found himself shunted from home to home before getting kicked out of the United States. Or Jessica Cho, also of South Korea, who was left stranded in a hotel room for a month.

Such cases prompted the U.S. State Department to strip a private program of its license to bring cultural-exchange students over to America. That program was meant to help improve America's image abroad. But USA United Students Association Inc. plans to use other means to keep bringing foreign students into the country regardless.

Dallas-based USA is one of dozens of nonprofit groups working with recruiters overseas to find homes and schools in the United States for foreign students, whose families can pay thousands of dollars for the privilege. The Ryus spent $20,000 for their son's stay in the United States.

Yet when Jason, then 16, arrived in the United States last August, he found he didn't have a host family. The agency found him one -- 10 days later. According to Stanley Colvin, a government official who oversees the cultural-exchange programs, that was a direct violation of State Department policy.

"The first rule [is] you must have a host-family placement before the student arrives," Colvin says.

Marooned Without Hope

Jessica Cho says she and dozens of students spent weeks in a Dallas hotel last year before USA found them host families. In her case, it was 31 days. At 16, she says, she was the oldest of the group. One girl was 14.

"We had no hope," Cho says. "Every day, every morning, we expected a call" about a host family.

Cho eventually was placed in a host home. So was Ryu -- not in Maine, as he'd originally been told, but in Allentown, Pa.

Ryu says his host family didn't cook or clean; the house was dirty and flea-ridden. He was often left alone.

"I was homesick," Ryu says. "I felt depressed, sad."

On top of that, Ryu -- who says he was told he would attend public school -- was instead placed in a private, unaccredited Christian school. USA threatened to return Ryu to Korea if his parents didn't pay the tuition. That was another violation of State Department policy, Colvin says.

USA told Ryu it was his fault he wasn't fitting in with his host family. But after about a month, the agency did move him; he wound up at the house of Melissa Myers in Quakertown, Pa. There, Ryu says he finally felt welcome.

"The kids were friendly," Ryu says. "It felt like family, a peaceful and happy atmosphere."

He was happy for four months. Then, USA learned that Myers had filed a complaint with the State Department about how the agency had treated Jason Ryu and other students. Soon after, Jason was forced to leave the country.

Colvin says the State Department receives about 100 complaints each year from the nearly 30,000 high-school students who come to the United States as exchange students annually. Most complaints don't require the government to step in. This one did.

A Program of 'Notoriety'

In mid-April, the State Department asked USA to surrender its license to run a cultural-exchange program. USA complied on April 24. Four days later, USA expelled Jason Ryu from America.

"I felt like a criminal," Ryu recalls. "I felt like I was getting arrested. They kept on telling me to go home."

A government review, dated April 6 and addressed to the company's executive director, concluded that USA's actions had brought the State Department's exchange program "into notoriety or disrepute." It asked USA to withdraw its license to spare the government "further embarrassment."

USA complied. Yet despite that loss of license, USA still calls itself a student-exchange program. But it's now relying on another visa program to bring in foreign students -- one that offers no State Department protections. They're called F1 visas, and they are regulated by the Department of Homeland Security.

F1 visas were once the province of wealthy high-school students attending boarding schools or living with relatives. But the documents are now popular with middle-class families from emerging economies who send their children to study in America, seeking a competitive edge.

A growing number of schools want to tap that market, which might mean more business for groups such as USA.

Calls for Stronger Protections

Chris Bentley, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, says students who come to the States on an F1 visa are required to prove they can support themselves. Beyond that, he says, it's up to the parents back home to make sure their child is all right.

Bentley says there's no evidence USA has broken any of Homeland Security's rules. But Lori Saldana, a California lawmaker from San Diego, says those rules aren't good enough. She's sponsored a bill that would force all foreign-student programs to run detailed background checks on host families in her state.

"I've heard stories of these students being subjected to what is almost indentured servitude," Saldana says. "And they're told that's just the way it is in the U.S. They may not have the cultural awareness to challenge being used as a housekeeper or nanny. We want to make sure none of those abuses are taking place."

Myers, the host mother who took in Jason Ryu, says she, too, believes young foreign students need stronger protections.

"There are kids coming here, and they pretty much don't have a voice," Myers says. "Nobody listens to what they have to say." And to her, that's not what America is about.

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Libby Lewis
Libby Lewis is an award-winning reporter on the National Desk whose pieces on issues of law, society, criminal justice, the military and social policy can be heard on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Day to Day, Weekend Edition Saturday, and other NPR shows.