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$MCD Accused of Exploiting Cultural Exchange Students

“For Argentine college student Jorge Rios, a U.S. government cultural-exchange program had huge appeal: He would earn money and use it to explore the country. But after spending $3,000 to participate, Mr. Rios said he found himself at the mercy of aMcDonald’s Corp. MCD +1.67% franchisee who was his employer and landlord.

This week, he and 14 other foreign students demonstrated outside a McDonald’s after filing complaints with the State Department and Labor Department saying they were exploited at fast-food outlets in the Harrisburg, Penn., area and housed in substandard conditions. The students were on a three-month J-1 visa for work and travel.

Reached on his cellphone on Thursday, Andy Cheung, the owner of the Harrisburg McDonald’s locations, said he was too busy to comment. A McDonald’s spokeswoman said the Oak Brook, Ill., chain is looking into the claims and, on behalf of Mr. Cheung, added, “The well-being of my employees is a top priority. The employees that are working in my restaurants as part of a guest worker program are no exception.”

As Congress debates an immigration overhaul, the controversy in Pennsylvania highlights the challenges of creating and managing any new visa program, particularly for temporary workers. Arizona Sen. John McCain said this week that working with labor to revamp visa programs has emerged as one of the toughest issues in discussions over a framework to provide legal status with a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million immigrants living in the U.S. illegally.

It also illustrates the challenges that employers, especially in businesses that rely on low-skilled labor, face as they struggle to fill jobs amid a crackdown on those that hire illegal immigrants.

The Harrisburg students arrived in the U.S. under the auspices of the Summer Work Travel Program, which the State Department’s website says provides the opportunity “to experience and to be exposed to the people and way of life in the United States.” In recent years, however, critics say it has served to supply low-wage labor for ski resorts, car washes and fast-food outlets from Colorado to North Dakota and New England.

“This is a cheap-labor program, nothing more,” said Carl Shusterman, a Los Angeles immigration attorney and former Immigration and Naturalization Service official. “Since when is flipping burgers a cultural exchange?”

Immigration attorneys said the J-1 visa program doesn’t face the same oversight as other temporary-worker programs, such as the H-1B, commonly used to bring in skilled workers, or the H-2A, for seasonal agricultural laborers. About 109,000 students came to the U.S. on the Summer Work Travel Program in 2011…..”

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