An organization that has brought thousands of foreign exchange students to the United States is telling its staff and host families that it will fight a State Department decision to suspend the company from the popular visa program, according to an email obtained by The Associated Press.

The San Diego-based Pacific Intercultural Exchange, or PIE, has been one of numerous companies designated by the State Department as an official sponsor to arrange exchanges for high school students. The sponsors often charge fees that can add up to thousands of dollars. The State Department suspended PIE from the program last week for undisclosed rule violations. The organization can appeal.

The suspension affects eight students in the United States now and about 455 from 18 countries that PIE had recruited, the State Department said. The agency said that it's working with the students here and that other sponsors are trying to find host families for the ones who haven't arrived. Some of them may have to put off participation in the program.

The AP obtained an email from PIE to host families and staff members that said it wasn't told in advance about the suspension and "the Department of State is taking actions without our notice or consent."

In the email, PIE said that "this truly is a precedent-setting decision" and that it will vigorously oppose the suspension.

A State Department official, however, said Monday that the company's president, John Doty, was told in June that the department "would be taking immediate action." The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the matter.

PIE officials haven't responded to messages from the AP. The company's website says it is a nonprofit organization that has facilitated exchanges for more than 25,000 high school students from all over the world since the 1970s.

The organization generated nearly $3.5 million from October 2009 to September 2010, according to a 2011 IRS filing required of nonprofit organizations. About $1.26 million was from government contributions or grants, but the majority of the company's money, about $2.26 million, came from its foreign program fees, according to the document.

The AP has also learned that Doty, PIE's president, has resigned as chairman of the Council on Standards for International Educational Travel. CSIET is a nonprofit organization that, among other things, promotes exchange programs and identifies and supports "reputable international youth exchange programs," according to its website.

Chris Page, CSIET's executive director, said Doty voluntarily resigned from the board. He had no other comment.

In a letter to CSIET members, Page said that Doty worked tirelessly with exchange groups, the State Department and Congress and brought "positive changes for the entire exchange industry."

"His work has earned him tremendous respect, not only in the U.S., but across the globe," the letter said.

The State Department has not said exactly why PIE was suspended from the program. The company has had problems in recent years. The State Department put it on probation last year, reduced the number of students it could sponsor by 15 percent and ordered it to improve program administration.

A lawsuit filed last year in Portland, Ore., alleges that a German student was molested after PIE placed him in a home with a host father who had a criminal record for fraud. The complaint, filed in Multnomah County Circuit Court, said the host father pleaded guilty in December 2010 to sexual abuse against the student. The lawsuit claims PIE did not do an adequate background check.

The Exchange Visitor Program brings close to 30,000 high school students to the United States each year. Foreign students live with a host family and attend U.S. schools. The program provides a fun learning experience for many students, but it also has come under some scrutiny over the years.

The AP reported in March that internal State Department documents revealed that an agency review last year found that 15 of its 39 "largest fee-charging" sponsors were in "regulatory noncompliance," though it didn't say what rules were violated. The State Department said at the time that it had received 43 allegations of sexual abuse since the beginning of the 2010-2011 school year.


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