PROVINCETOWN — It was news to many in Provincetown — including the owners of at least two pedicab companies and evidently to the town government as well — that the J-1 visa program that brings international students to the U.S. for a summer of work and travel specifically forbids them to drive pedicabs.
There are 333 J-1 students in Provincetown this summer and another 43 still “in progress” on their visas, according to a State Dept. website. And it seems that for as long as there have been pedicabs here, international students have been pedaling them.
“This company has been open for 20 years, and the owners before us said that Irish J-1s used to drive,” said Galib Galib, who with his business partner, Georgi Todorov, bought Ptown Pedicabs in 2017. Galib, a U.S citizen, and Todorov, a green card holder, both first came to America from Bulgaria on the J-1 program, and the majority of their pedicab drivers this year were Bulgarians on J-1 visas.
The 37 sponsor agencies that organize the “Summer Work Travel” J-1 placements nationwide, however, were clear about the rules. When Jimmy Brazelton, managing director of GeoVisions, headquartered in Austin, Texas, found out that students his company had sponsored were driving pedicabs here, he flew to Provincetown and met with employers to find out who was driving — and whether they had abandoned their original jobs.
“A very small number of students were found to have violated a multitude of program rules, regulations, and requirements,” Brazelton wrote in an email to the Independent. “No matter how we become aware of program violations, we have a responsibility to take them seriously.”
Brazelton told Town Manager Alex Morse that five J-1 students in Provincetown were “being removed.”
According to the State Dept.’s website, “Participants found to be in violation of program regulations and/or sponsor’s rules may be terminated from the program,” at which point they are expected to leave the country immediately.
Brazelton would not tell the Independent or Morse how he became aware that J-1 students were driving pedicabs.
“The only reason this seems to have come up,” Morse wrote to the select board, “is because ‘someone in Town’ (there is a lot of speculation as to who) reached out to file a complaint that there were J-1s illegally operating pedicabs in Town. Mr. Brazelton wouldn’t tell me who or how this was raised to him.”
The speculation about who tipped off Brazelton has been intense.
Rumors that a local business owner who was upset with the pedicab companies intentionally had their fleet of drivers deported enraged many people here — including the businessman who was the subject of those rumors.
“It is so outrageous,” said Joachim Sandbichler, who with his husband, Mark Ferrari, owns three restaurants on Commercial Street: Pepe’s Wharf, the Patio, and Freeman’s. “We totally renovated staff housing last year for J-1 students to have a place to stay. We pay a $750 co-pay for their rentals. To insinuate that we would do anything to harm any of them, whether they work for us or not, is just painful. It’s disappointing, and it’s nonsense.”
Sandbichler said he has 34 J-1 students working for him this year. Students who work for him are often promoted into management jobs, he said, and several have moved here and started businesses.
Sandbichler insisted that neither he nor his husband had any role in initiating the visa enforcement action. He said he had only recently heard about Brazelton’s visit because the company that sponsors most of his student employees — Greenheart Exchange, based in Chicago — had never contacted him to ask whether his employees might also work driving pedicabs.
Sandbichler said that none of his employees were working for pedicab companies this year, although he said that last year some did.
A related rumor was that Bruno Magnun Robinson, the manager at the Patio, had alerted the sponsor agencies. Word was that he did so by filing a police report about an incident that had happened three weeks earlier in which he was called a homophobic slur by a J-1 student who is also a pedicab driver.
There is no police report regarding that incident, Barbara Peters, the records clerk at the Provincetown Police Dept., confirmed to the Independent.
Magnun Robinson also denied having alerted any visa sponsors.
As for having been called a name, “I had to move on, to forgive and forget,” Magnun Robinson told the Independent. “Now people are pointing at me on the street, saying I’m this monster who deported people. I’m an immigrant myself. I would never do that to anyone.” Magnun Robinson is from Brazil.
There were 55 licensed pedicab drivers in town as of June 21 — the day that Brazelton asked the town’s licensing agent, Linda Fiorella, for the list. Forty-three of the names on the list appear to be Eastern European, with last names ending in -ov, -ev, -ova, or -eva.
The document Fiorella provided to Brazelton, and subsequently to the Independent, does not list the visa status of those licensed drivers. The town does ask international workers to provide copies of their visas in order to receive a pedicab operator license, however.
Several people involved in the pedicab business, including Karen Nash, the owner of B/well Pedicabs, Galib and Todorov, and licensed pedicab driver Ilvi Shetev, said they had not known that J-1 students could not drive pedicabs — and pointed out that apparently town hall did not know either.
“My name was on the pedicab list because I got a license this year but didn’t drive,” said Shetev. “I wanted to, but I have a main job, and it just didn’t work out.”
When the sponsor agency called, it wanted to know if Shetev was actually working the job he had originally signed up for, he said.
“They called me and asked if I was working my shifts, and the next day they called my employer and asked him if I was working my shifts,” Shetev said. “I work at Tin Pan Alley, and my boss there said, ‘Yes, he really is working,’ because I was,” Shetev said.
GeoVision may not be the only company to have received correspondence about pedicab drivers — but on the long holiday weekend, the Independent’s calls to Greenheart Exchange and Intrax Work/Travel were not returned.
The loss for the J-1 students will be more than financial, Todorov said, because driving pedicabs is a great way for young people to interact with Americans from all over the country, and because Provincetown has an especially diverse group of riders. His business partner agreed. “Our drivers didn’t just like pedicab — they loved it,” said Galib.
Provincetown Independent summer fellow Oliver Egger contributed reporting for this article.