In a few weeks, thousands of foreign exchange students will arrive in the United States for what they hope will be a rewarding time of study and cultural enrichment. Shortly after that, Danielle Grijalva's phone will start ringing, and her e-mail inbox will begin filling up. It happens every year.
While most of the 30,000 exchange students who come to the U.S. each year have positive experiences, some find themselves stuck in bad homes with little prospect of getting out — especially if the agency that placed them doesn't take their concerns seriously or even blames them for the problems.
These are Grijalva's kids.
From her base in Oceanside, Calif., the 43-year-old stay-at-home mom has almost single-handedly taken on the foreign exchange industry, intervening in abuse cases, questioning placement agencies' marketing practices, and bashing the U.S. State Department for what she says is lax regulation.
The industry says she exaggerates problems and makes reckless allegations. Two defamation lawsuits have been filed against her.
But the watchdog's complaints about the dozens of programs that import foreigners were recently borne out in northeastern Pennsylvania, where a Scranton woman was charged last week with child endangerment for allegedly placing exchange students in filthy homes with ex-convicts and not enough food. Grijalva helped one of the teens file a complaint with the State Department and offered advice to local child welfare investigators on how to proceed.
Her involvement was to be expected. Since launching her tiny nonprofit five years ago — the Committee for Safety of Foreign Exchange Students — Grijalva (gree-HAHL'-vah) has answered thousands of e-mails and phone calls from aggrieved students and their worried parents back home.
"By the time they reach CFCES, they are so exhausted and so emotional, but so elated to find someone who will say, 'We will help you as much as we can,'" Grijalva said.
She has racked up some notable successes. Besides getting students out of bad situations, her organization successfully pushed for regulatory reform in 2006 and investigated an Allentown-based placement agency that Pennsylvania authorities shut down earlier this year.
She's also made enemies. On a recent Sunday morning, Grijalva was served with a state lawsuit that claims she defamed one of the largest exchange programs, California-based Council for Educational Travel, USA, by making "false statements" about it while intervening in the case of a Norwegian student in Minnesota.
A French agency, Programmes Internationaux d'Echanges, and two of its U.S. affiliates sued her for defamation in North Carolina two years ago, and won a preliminary injunction against her while the case proceeds.
Grijalva, who has countersued P.I.E., says the lawsuits are intended to shut her up.
But critics complain that she paints with an overly broad brush, resulting in a distorted picture of the U.S. exchange program. Since the majority of students go home happy, they say it's unfair and inaccurate to malign an entire industry based on scattered cases of abuse and neglect.
"She tends to speak in fairly broad generalizations that are probably pretty hard to prove," said John Hishmeh, executive director of the industry's accrediting body, the Council on Standards for International Educational Travel. "When you look at (the recent Pennsylvania scandal) and somebody says, 'That's how they all are,' that's reckless."
Grijalva makes no apologies for her activism or her tactics.
"Some people are trying to say I have an agenda, a vendetta. We're talking about the health, safety and welfare of children that are treated like cars being moved off the lot," she said. "This is not about me. This is about the efforts of CSFES to protect these kids."
In that regard, she has a lot of satisfied customers.
Danish student Emily Larsen says her host family in Denver belonged to a fundamentalist church that denounced Jews, Muslims, homosexuals and others. Larsen, who was raised secular, says she was made to go to the church 10 hours a week, and that it "brainwashed" her and pressured her to join. When her placement counselor ignored her pleas for help, she turned to CSFES.
"I felt like my whole life was totally falling apart," said Larsen, of Copenhagen, whose experience left her so traumatized that she has been seeing a psychologist. "In two days, Danielle got me out."
Nemesia Lago, a Colombian whose teenage son was one of five exchange students found to be living in deplorable conditions in Scranton, says Grijalva responded immediately to her request for help and was dogged in her advocacy. "She became like an angel," Lago, of La Guajira, wrote in an e-mail.
Grijalva says exchange agencies often bring students to the U.S. without first securing host families for them, leading to hasty, ill-advised placements like the ones in northeastern Pennsylvania. And many agencies require students to first approach their local coordinators with problems, threatening them with repatriation if they seek outside help.
She used to be part of the industry, working as a placement counselor between 2002 and 2004 and taking pride in matching exchange students with caring, qualified host families. But she was disturbed by her company's marketing practices, and quit the business altogether in the wake of a case of sexual abuse — involving a placement by another representative — that she says the company tried to cover up.
Shortly thereafter, Grijalva began CSFES, which she operates on a shoestring, relying on a network of more than 1,000 volunteers around the country. A former legal secretary who left the work force 13 years ago to raise her three children, she is close to finishing her college degree and plans to go to law school.
Lana Simovic of Podgorica, Montenegro says her son was sent home by his exchange agency after only two months for what she described as relatively minor rules violations, prompting a State Department inquiry into the program's actions. She called Grijalva a godsend.
"Danielle Grijalva is (the) only person that gave me hope that in America there are reasonable people," she wrote in an e-mail.