By Stephen McKinley
Two young Irish women who came to Cape Cod on J-1 summer work visas found themselves paying $105 a week each for beds in a motel that were infested with bedbugs.
Like thousands of other young foreign students, Pamela Agar from Wicklow and Louise Austin from Tipperary decided to come to the U.S. for a summer’s work experience.
The two 21-year-olds selected Cape Cod as their destination, because they knew that many fellow Irish students would be there as well.
Although their summer work experience has not been a total disaster, it is nevertheless a reminder that some J-1 students are routinely exploited or mistreated during their time in the U.S. and find the experience traumatic.
“Work was really easy to find,” said Agar, who with her friend Louise Austin have since moved to Woodside in Queens, where they knew they had friends with whom they could stay. They have been friends since they started studying as business and finance students at Waterford Institute of Technology.
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“But we knew when we moved in that the accommodation wasn’t great,” she said, of the room they found at the Cape Cod Holiday Inn in Hyannis.
“Only one week after we started work, we were getting bitten at night,” continued Agar. “It seems I was allergic to the bites, so the marks showed more on me than on [Louise].”
“It was disgraceful,” Austin said. “We had to go to the medical center, and then to the hospital.
“At first we thought it was just mosquitoes at night, but I was getting bitten all over, my legs, my arms, my back.”
When the two complained, management at the motel agreed to change the mattress. But Agar found that the problem persisted. The second mattress was infested as well.
“They were supposed to spray the room,” Agar said, “but the first guy who came hardly even looked at the mattresses.”
The second motel maintenance man came and when he looked at the mattress, he said that he could clearly see bedbugs.
“They looked like a small black beetley thing,” Austin said.
Worse was to come for the two, who persisted in complaining about the problem with the bedbugs.
The management at the motel refused to comment on the women’s experience, and did not return telephone messages. They did clean the women’s clothing, but when they agreed to move the two to another motel, the replacement room was no better.
“They seemed to be getting mad at us for complaining,” said Agar.
A week after leaving Cape Cod, Agar still bore the marks from the bites on her arms and legs.
The two had been sharing the room with two other students, two to a bed, and as Austin put it, “We were paying $105 a week for half a bedbugged bed.”
“So they moved us to a second motel, and that seemed like a dive too,” Austin said. “We put our stuff in the new room for two hours, and then decided we’d had enough, so we said to them that we wanted to leave.”
The management then insisted that because they had had their luggage in the rooms for two hours, that they had occupied the room, and wanted to charge them for a full night’s rent.
“They said, ‘You’ve occupied the room,’ and wanted at least $80 for it. We told them, ‘We want to leave,’ ” said Agar, who was suddenly afraid that their clothes and gear would be held hostage.
“We didn’t know what to do, and wanted to call the police. They suddenly changed their mind and let us go. The last thing they said to us was ‘have a nice day.’ ”
Agar and Austin said that they were not the only ones with bedbug problems.
“It was mad,” Austin said. “They seemed to have to move people all the time, because of problems with bedbugs or something else. Other people were getting bitten.”
Because Agar knew she had friends in New York, the two were able to take a bus to the city. Once arrived, they went to the Emerald Isle Immigration Center in Woodside, in the hope of finding work as well as highlighting the situation they had found themselves in.
Where to turn?
At the Emerald Isle Immigration Center, director Anne-Marie Scanlon said that she had not heard of similar cases this year, but that often J-1 students who may fall into problems during their stay in the U.S. do not know where to turn to for help.
“I would be horrified to think that there would be other J-1 students in similar situations, but if it’s happened once, it has likely happened other times,” she said. “The only reason we heard about this was because one of the young women had relatives here in New York.”
She continued: “There may be plenty of J-1 students with no friends in the U.S. and who may just be enduring some situation.”
“I encourage anyone with a problem like these two women had, to contact us — or contact USIT,” which is the organization that runs the annual J-1 summer work program for overseas students.
In an unrelated incident in early July, a 20-year-old Belfast J-1 student, Colin Magill, fell to his death in Wildwood, N.J.
In other years, some horrific stories have emerged about the treatment of J-1 students in the U.S., although the incidents are relatively rare.
In July 1998, two Irish J-1 students were raped at gunpoint in Portsmouth, Mass. The rapist fled to Holland, where he eventually gave himself up to police in Amsterdam.
In 1995, Dublin City University honors biotechnology student Orla Benson, 22, from Muckross, Co. Kerry, was savagely raped and stabbed to death in Boston by Pedro Rosario, 30, after he lured her to a youth center around 1 a.m. on Sept. 23, as she walked home from a night out with friends. A Suffolk Superior Court jury convicted Rosario of first-degree murder and aggravated rape. He was sentenced to two consecutive life terms.
Benson was in Boston on a three-month J-1 work visa. She was employed as a waitress at the Woodland Golf Club in Newton.
And in June 1994, another Irish student, Patrick “P.J.” McDonagh, 19, from Connemara, Co. Galway, disappeared while visiting relatives in Boston. Toward the end of last year his body was found in the murky water of an estimated 300-foot deep quarry, in Quincy, Mass. McDonagh was a business student at University College in Galway.
Another J-1 student in New York who gave his name as Patrick said that he was going back to Dublin early, because he had not liked his experience in New York.
Part of the reason for this, he said, was that “when people heard you were Irish, they treated you like crap, or didn’t want to know you,” he said.
At the Irish Consulate in Boston, a spokesperson said that “most of [the students] do not get in trouble.”
“This has been a bit of a dampner,” Agar said of her experience. “But I just think we were one of the unlucky stories. We might come back next year, or maybe we’ll go to Europe. Now we are just looking for work.”