MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) - From 1,100 miles away, across a stretch of the Atlantic Ocean, 10 college students from the Dominican Republic made their way to Myrtle Beach last summer to take part in the U.S. State Department's J1 Visa Summer Work Program.
It was going to be a trip to remember, consisting of sun, fun, cultural experiences and working at places like ice cream shops and cafés.
A Dominican college student, Ana Cabrera initially applied for a program in Texas, but was eligible for Myrtle Beach instead.
"I said, well that's fine, because my friend and me were going to the same place and I didn't have a complaint about that," Cabrera said.
And why should there be? She signed on with a company called American Work Adventures, paying hundreds of dollars for the opportunity to work in America. It was $1,375 for the program fee, $250 for the flight, $160 for the visa and a $180 housing deposit. It was almost $2,000 in all.
In return, Cabrera could work at Ricciardis Italian Ice on Mr. Joe White Avenue in food sales for $7.75 per hour and live in "dorm-like" facilities at the Fountain Blue Inn Hotel, arranged under the local sponsor, Grandeur Management, according to the documents she received.
But Cabrera and her friends paint a very different picture about what they actually got the day they arrived.
"I feel like cheated because everything was different and nobody cares about our situation," Cabrera said.
Details in the 12-page complaint against AWA, Grandeur Management and International Exchange of North America filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center describe a summer nightmare.
"They didn't work for any of the jobs they were promised," said Meredith Stewart, a Southern Poverty attorney assigned to the case. "They lived in apartments that were infested with bed bugs and they were sent to work for a labor broker who essentially farmed them out to different employers, sometimes on a daily basis. Some of them even said, had they known this was going to be the experience, they never would have come to the United States."
According to the complaint, Cabrera and others were first taken to housing all the way in North Myrtle Beach, but after expressing concern, their local sponsor, Grandeur Management, brought them to the Calypso Motor Inn in Myrtle Beach, where they say the AC was broken, plumbing was shoddy, they were forced to sleep two to a bed and, likely the worst part, they allege the room was invested with bed bugs.
"The whole house was like infected," Cabrera said.
The Calypso Motor Inn is the same motel that was shut down by the Myrtle Beach fire marshal after Irish J1 students reported overcrowding and dangerous living conditions in 2013.
It was reopened later that summer.
As for work at Riccardia's Italian Ice, Cabrera said that never happened.
Instead, she said Grandeur Management offered her a housekeeping job at the Bar Harbour Hotel, doing laundry in strenuous conditions that didn't allow for interaction with Americans and offered very few hours.
It left her without a way to make back the money she spent in fees to get here.
These kinds of issues are why the Myrtle Beach Police Department started J1 business outreach meetings in 2011 to educate and protect the young people who travel here to work.
During a meeting in March, sponsors, police and a representative from the state department were on hand to discuss issues students deal with every year and how to combat them.
"We take in close to 4,000 students during the season," said Myrtle Beach Police Det. Pete Woods. "These meetings are crime prevention, most of the students are 19 to 23, first time away from home. English could be their second, third language. It's important they get acclimated and be safe so they can have a productive season here.
The students did complain to AWA and Grandeur Management via email. The state department complaint says they even went down to the local Grandeur Management office and were allegedly told by the owner of the company, Raja Younas, that "troublemakers would be kicked out of the program."
WMBF News reached out to the companies in the complaint, as well as the state department, for answers to the allegations.
Several calls were made to American Work Adventures and eventually WMBF was told there is no one that can answer questions related to the complaint.
International Exchange of North America would only provide this statement:
"We were contacted by the state department and we do everything we can to ensure the safety and well-being of our students in Myrtle Beach, as well as other locations."
As for Grandeur management and the owner, Raja Younas, multiple messages were left and were returned.
As of now, state department officials said they are still investigating.
In the meantime, Cabrera has advice for other J1 students looking to participate in the program.
"You need to be sure what you're doing, you need to have everything clear, like where you're going, where you're going to work, who's your sponsor, who's your employer and everything," she said.
The Southern Poverty Law Center said it has filed similar complaints against companies in other states on behalf of foreign students and has been successful in getting student fees returned.
It hopes these 10 students get the same outcome.
If anyone knows of exploitation or misdoing regarding these J1 students in town, contact local authorities of the state department at (866) 283-9090.