By Claire Sundstrom, Associate
Every year, about 25,000 foreign exchange students come to the United States to live and study in America. These foreign exchange students are eager to attend an American high school and experience American life. Most arrive through various programs, and the goal among all of them is lofty: to offer foreign exchange students a positive experience in the U.S.A. Most sponsors (or “hosts”) consist of families with children looking for a mutual exchange of cultural enrichment. Unfortunately, not all sponsors or hosts have good intentions and are drawn to such programs for the purpose of exploiting innocent adolescents, leaving a lifetime of emotional scars.
According to the United States Department of State, there are approximately eighty (80) non-profit organizations that operate high school programs for foreign exchange students. To participate in these exchange programs, families pay about $10,000 (USD) to send their children to the United States. These exchange programs are endorsed and regulated by the U.S. Department of State. A student seeking to participate in one of the many exchange programs can easily search the internet for a placement agency, which will detail the wonderful experience that awaits them in the U.S.A. Many of these placement agencies fill their websites with images that do not necessarily match reality, and some even engage in practices that do not fully comply with U.S. Department of State regulations. Some programs use certain tactics to lure students to use their services in what amounts to a “bait and switch” practice that can be highly profitable. Often times the common thread in these instances is the tactic of using language barriers against the student.
Prior to arrival in the United States, these foreign exchange students receive a package of information about what to expect when they arrive and information regarding what to do in the event of an emergency. These programs will promise to sponsor the students, promise to ensure that the host families are screened, including a criminal background check, and promise to ensure that host family homes have been checked at least twice. Unfortunately, these promises are often not kept. While there are no hard statistics, it appears that most foreign exchange students have a positive experience, but others will fall victim to what is essentially sexual abuse or exploitation, neglect, and even extortion. To make matters worse, the student is often the first to be blamed when a problem arises. Quite often an argument is made that the student “misperceived,” or, due to a language barrier, “misunderstood” what transpired. To avoid escalation of bad publicity, a program may swiftly send a distraught student back to his or her country of origin and treat the incident as one arising from cultural differences or a student’s psychological problems. These sorts of incidents do not appear to be isolated. While a program may claim to routinely visit every home, there are not enough representatives to visit 25,000 homes per year. It is just not logistically possible. Consequently, some students are being sent to live with strangers in an American home that is not appropriate for placement or that may even pose a significant risk of harm.
Before you send your child to America through one of these programs, be sure to review the United States Department of State regulations available on the internet (Section 62.25 in particular) to understand your rights — and, more importantly, your child’s rights. Your child has the right to be placed with a host family that has been properly screened, to live in a home that meets basic standards of cleanliness, and to never be threatened with visa revocation or risk being abandoned by a program due to the child raising legitimate concerns.
We have assisted families experiencing problems after participating in an international foreign exchange student program. If we can help you, please do not hesitate to contact Jackson Law International.
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