The United States has long been a coveted destination for international students to study and work, but these hopeful students may not know what they're signing up for.
A federal judge set a $250,000 bond on Friday for Reginald Wayne Miller, 65, founder and president of Cathedral Bible College in Marion, South Carolina, who was arrested last week on charges of extorting forced labor from eight international students.
Forced labor is a felony that can result in up to 20 years per count for anyone convicted of compelling another person to work under duress.
“These students endured work schedules that were outside the bounds of those permitted by federal regulations for F-1 [visa] students, including performing work under hostile conditions and duress, and work serving a primary benefit to Dr. Miller himself, including labor and upkeep at his personal residence,” says an affidavit filed last week by Christopher Scott Haviland, a Homeland Security special agent who interviewed the students who came forward on condition they remain anonymous for the time being.
Miller’s court-appointed public defender, Michael Meetze, did not return a request for comment. A representative at Cathedral Bible College declined to comment. A spokesperson at the Florence County Detention Center confirmed Tuesday that Miller is still being held and has not made bail.
In most cases F-1 visas allow international students to work up to 20 hours a week on campus as long as they are attending classes full time. The college offers degrees in theology for students interested in pursuing Christian ministry and counseling work. The school’s website claims that its academic credits are transferrable to other religious schools in the US.
The students allege they were paid as little as 90 cents an hour to work as much as 56 hours a week, in some cases doing chores at Miller’s home. As quoted in the affidavit, one student said he was told to teach a science course even though he had no experience in the subject.
Another said that while doing maintenance work outdoors he was told to continue to work in the rain while his American counterparts were allowed to go inside. Another said Miller threatened to send him back to Peru if he didn’t improve his conduct.
All eight of the students allege that Miller threatened to send them home unless they obeyed his orders.
The abuses outlined in the affidavit filed against Miller are similar to ones that have been committed against college students who come to the U.S. under the J-1 visa for cultural exchange programs, which allow foreign students to work for up to four months in the country.
In 2010, an Associated Press investigative report showed many of these students who thought they were coming to experience American culture and values ended up working full-time minimum wage jobs. Some had to take second jobs and visit charity food banks to make ends meet during their stays.
In 2011, foreign J-1 visa holders protested their work doing night shifts at a plant packing Hershey’s chocolates in Pennsylvania, underscoring how a 53-year-old program to promote cultural exchange has evolved into a temporary work program.
“While the State Department’s enforcement actions against sponsors [employers who use workers under the J-1 visa program] have increased in recent months, they are overall still infrequent,” said a report published in February by the Southern Poverty Law Center about problems with exploiting college-age guest workers. “Given these actions, the department is not wielding much of a ‘stick’ to ensure sponsors comply with the program regulations,” the group concluded.