Fraud, Prostitution Ignite Clampdown on Russian Student Workers

Back in May, the Irish Voice anticipated a wave of Irish students arriving for the season of students on J-1 summer work visas. Now, as summer winds down, Russkaya Reklama takes a more sobering look at the J-1 visa situation, and why the usual 30,000 Russian-speaking youths that come every summer dropped to only 8,000 this year. Reporter Leah Moses reports that enforcement has tightened because of illegal practices associated with the visa, including false employment contracts, prostitution and bank fraud schemes. The article is translated below from Russian.

Nearly 70 percent of Russian-speaking students who applied for a J-1 visa had their application turned down as the State Department tightens its grip on the program and its susceptibility to fraud. (Photo via Russkaya Reklama)

Every summer, thousands of students from different countries flood America. They come here on a “work and travel” J-1 visa obtained through the State Department’s J-1 visa program. It is a very popular program abroad but very questionable here. Usually, students from the former Soviet Union are the largest group of participants. This year, up to 70 percent of Russian-speaking students couldn’t obtain J-1 visas. Why did this happen?

The Summer Work Travel Program, which is under the J-1 visa, allows college students to visit for up to four months and is one of the State Department’s most popular visas. According to the information on the website, the number of traveling students from the former USSR was the largest in previous years.

About 30,000 young people came to America every summer from Russia alone, eager to make some money and become acquainted with the country of freedom and unlimited possibilities. Russian students were a large part of American tourism from the second half of May till the end of September.

But this summer is different. Although official numbers will not be available until September, some Russian websites are reporting that only about 8,000 students came to America this season.

Violating Contracts and Laws

Why were Russian students not welcome to the U.S. this summer? To begin with, we should point out that J-1 exchange visitors have long been treated ambiguously. A lot of Americans think of them as honest and nice young people whose work and presence benefits our country and strengthens relations between the two countries. Their opponents believe that the program is simply a ruse that brings crooks, thieves, and prostitutes to the U.S. with bald intentions to stay here for good.

Supervisors of the Work and Travel program worry about J-1 students breaching their contracts when they arrive in America. According to the rules of the program, 85 percent of J-1 visitors are supposed to work in Southern, Central and Northern states, including small towns and the countryside. But most of the J-1 students didn’t want to live and work in provincial regions and headed to metropolises like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and the like.

It is legal for a J-1 visitor to violate a contract if he or she informs a potential employer about a job in another city or state as well as informs SEVIS, the organization that tracks Work and Travel visitors.

Supervisors of the Work and Travel program have insisted that the [problem of] immigration of J-1 students was so massive that they offered to strengthen the rules for participation in the program, and in particular to deport every student who switched jobs or violated the conditions of the contract.

Experts from the Bureau of Labor Statistics added fuel to the fire by revealing the fact that most of the employment contracts for J-1 visas were simply counterfeited and sold over the Internet. And some sources say that the number of fake contracts amounted to 95 percent in previous years. Moreover, the idea to forge these employment contracts belongs, alas, to Russians.

J-1 visitors are known for other crimes, such as forging documents (mostly identification), sales of Social Security cards before leaving for home, stealing goods in stores, fake marriages, and such. J-1 women were willing to work in escort services and strip clubs, and often combined striptease with the other less honorable but a more ancient profession.

Finally, many J-1 students used their chance to travel to America as an opportunity to stay here for good. According to the National Student Association, 20 percent of J-1 visitors don’t work in the U.S., but just travel. As many as 30 percent of them come here with the intention to stay. U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement has found that every summer, at least 10,000 J-1 students don’t want to leave America.

It’s no wonder then that among the opponents of the Work and Travel Program are leaders of organizations fighting against illegal immigration. Moreover, there are opponents of the program even in the State Department itself, who raised the question of tightening the rules of the Work and Travel program and even eliminating the program altogether.

Hackers and “Mules”

A two-year-old scandal involving J-1 visitors from Russia was the last straw. The Manhattan U.S. Attorney filed charges against 37 defendants in 21 separate cases for their roles in global bank fraud schemes that used hundreds of falsely-named bank accounts to steal over $3 million from dozens of U.S. accounts that were compromised by malware attacks.

The cyber-attacks began in Eastern Europe, and included the use of a malware known as the “Zeus Trojan” that embedded itself in the victims’ computers and recorded their keystrokes—including their account numbers, passwords, and other vital security codes—as they logged onto their bank accounts online.

To carry out the scheme, hackers used a “money mule organization” that recruited J-1 visitors, providing them with fake foreign passports, and instructing them to open falsely-named accounts at U.S. banks. Once these falsely-named accounts were successfully opened, they received the stolen funds from the accounts compromised by the malware attacks, and the “mules” were instructed to transfer the proceeds to other accounts, most of which were overseas, or to withdraw the proceeds and transport them overseas as smuggled bulk cash.

After this scandal, U.S. authorities are no longer in doubt that the Work and Travel program must be changed and the number of J-1 visas for students from Russia and other former Soviet countries must be limited.

Night Shifts are Prohibited

This year, U.S. authorities began to really tighten the screws. At first, the State Department banned J-1 visitors from working between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. This was done in order to prevent female students from working in strip clubs and escort services. And if a J-1 female is caught breaking this rule, she will be deported back to her homeland.

Also, the State Department intends to prohibit manufacturing jobs like construction, industrial and agricultural work. The ban will come into force in November, but many related businesses have declined to recruit J-1 students this summer.

It will be much more difficult for J-1 visitors to extend or change their visas for students or tourists. Of course, no one can prohibit them from doing it, but they will go through a lot of scrutiny in order to make the change. And if a J-1 visitor is found involved in some kind of unlawful activity, they will be fined and even jailed.

Now, a lot of students from Russia and the former Soviet republics can’t even get into the Work and Travel program simply because they present an employment contract in companies run by owners of Russian descent or companies based in Brooklyn (the so-called capital of Russian immigration).

Finally, J-1 visas were waived for students that had suspicious jobs in their contracts such as “manager” or “paralegal,” students who have relatives in the U.S., and of course the ones who didn’t obey the rules previously.

As we can see, the future of the Work and Travel program depends not only on U.S. authorities, but on the participants themselves. But will future J-1 visitors learn the lessons of their predecessors?

Editor’s note: This article has been edited after publication to correct a hyperlink and a line of the translation.

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