SIOUX CITY – On Monday, a room full of exchange students sat around without any idea of what the next days would bring. They came to the United States on a J-1 visa for the promise of an educational credential and cultural exchange. But this past winter, their sponsor institution Western Iowa Technical Community College struggled to find internships for the 43 students and announced it was making changes to the program.

This past Friday, things got even more uncertain, when the students learned Western Iowa Tech was preparing to send them back to their home countries in accordance with U.S. State Department advisory related to the spread of COVID-19. The college was procuring one-way tickets for students to fly out Wednesday, March 18.

The move by the community college is in response to a letter they received Friday morning from U.S. State Department. It advised Western Iowa Tech and other institutions running Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs-funded exchange programs to suspend for 60 days starting as early as March 11 when President Donald Trump enacted the 30-day travel ban.

The Press-Citizen reached out to the college but did not hear back immediately.

“We have enjoyed having you here. There have been long-lasting relationships developed, and we’ve learned so much from each participant in the program,” the letter from Western Iowa Tech read. “Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, we must follow the advice of the government for the health and safety of the global community.”

Included in the five-page letter sent to J-1 visa students, was the CDC’s March 9 guidance for institutions of higher education who have students participating in international travel or study abroad programs. They advise these colleges and universities to consider asking current students to return to their home countries.

“The COVID-19 situation is dynamic,” the CDC’s guide read. “Given the spread and the number of countries experiencing community transmission, (institutions of higher learning) should evaluate the risks associated with choosing to maintain programs abroad and take the appropriate proactive measures.”

“Those overseeing students international travel programs should be aware that students may face unpracticable circumstances, travel restrictions, challenges in returning home or accessing health care while abroad,” the CDC’s guide read.

The community college told the J-1 students they had until 5 p.m. on March 18 to move out of their on-campus apartments. At a time not yet disclosed to the students, the college will collect the laptops it issued, as well as apartment keys, and drive them to the airport. To make ends meet on the days leading up to their flight Wednesday, the college issued $50 gift cards to purchase groceries. In addition, the meal plan the college began offering in the winter would continue until departure.

“I feel really deluded,” said student Brian Malo who is from Brazil. “It’s really hard because when they reached out to us, they made a lot of promises. And I believed them.”

Malo, 24, flew from Rio de Janeiro to study robotics at Western Iowa Tech. While taking classes, he claimed his visa-required internship had him working in excess of 50 hours a week at the local Royal Canin factory. While he said this felt like this was coercive means of getting labor, to not receive his degree and be unceremoniously flown home was too much to handle.

“We came here legally. We came here to study and learn new things. To have an exchange opportunity,” Malo said. “To go back to our country after all of this?”

Growing awareness of the COVID-19 pandemic only made students more nervous about flying back. Students only had five days to make preparations for their return. Malo said the only place he could think to return to was his grandmother. However, he is concerned that flying would open him up to infection; a move that could prove dangerous to his grandmother’s health.

“They say they are doing this because of the virus,” Malo said. “They don’t care about the virus. They just want to get rid of us.”

“It’s too dangerous to go to their airports,” said Silmar Hayes, 27, of Brazil. “But I don’t have a choice. I don’t have a perspective on my future right now. It’s hard for me to say anything right now because I just don’t know.”

Cesar Junior, 28, and Marcos Pinto, 27, both of Brazil said they were concerned about moving in with aged family members not knowing whether they would carry the virus back with them. 

“That’s it. Now I return to my country without anything. Sure there are worse things,” Junior said. “But I don’t feel they had any respect for us. They treated us like things, like furniture.”

He claimed that despite it being a cultural exchange, he didn’t even have classes with American students only some students from Chile also in the J-1 visa program. 

“You know, I guess I improved my Spanish while I was here,” joked Junior, a native Portuguese speaker.

Breana Vilchez, a U.S. citizen, is married to Fernando Vilchez, one of the Chilean J-1 visa students. She said they fell quickly in love when she first met Fernando shooting pool at Jim’s Lounge in Sioux City. They were married in January 2020. The couple thought they had months to save up the money and apply for Fernando’s green card, but the pandemic-motivated return flight caught them by surprise.

“It leaves me in a pickle,” Breana said. “What am I supposed to do? I can’t keep him here because it violates his visa. For me, it is devastating. I don’t know what to do.”

With her lot thrown in with the students, she said she was worried.

“Right now, we are all scared,” she said.

Background on J-1 visa students brought in by Western Iowa Tech

This puts a period on a conflict between Western Iowa Tech and it’s J-1 visa students who claimed the college lured them to the United States under false pretenses so they could be used as cheap labor in local factories. The college denied these claims.

The Press-Citizen acquired a letter sent to students stating the college would provide food among other things. Many came for a culinary or robotics certification, only to find themselves working in excess of the 32 required hours in factory line positions at manufacturers like Tur-Pak and Royal Canin — positions that shared little with the training the program claimed to offer. 

Western Iowa Tech President Terry Murrell claimed the problem was one of miscommunication, errors made in letters sent to students and realizations about the skills students were coming in with. 

Murrell told the Press-Citizen that the college had eaten most of the costs associated with their miscommunication, providing students with gift cards for groceries as well as a free meal plan. He said the reason for the factory floor internships was that J-1 students lacked some of the skills necessary for those jobs available. 

“We knew early on these were not the optimum jobs we wanted our students to be in,” Murrell said. “They came with minimal skills so these were the jobs that were available.”

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Zachary Oren Smith writes about government, growth and development for the Press-Citizen. Reach him at or 319 -339-7354, and follow him on Twitter via @zacharyos.

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