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Teachers On The Edge: Visa Problems Plague School Districts Around The Country

Bill Zeeble
Nearly 80 teachers in the Dallas Independent School District face deportation when their visas expire later this year.

In Garland, two dozen teachers are still in limbo. Recruited from other countries, they’re on the verge of losing their jobs and being deported when their H1-B visas expire. They're not alone. School systems and teachers across the country – and just down the highway in Dallas – are dealing with similar visa problems.

In Maryland, the Department of Labor fined one school district nearly $2 million and ordered it to pay $4 million in back wages. In Louisiana, 350 Filipino teachers won a class-action lawsuit against a recruiting company that forced them to sign away 10 percent of their salaries. And in Garland, federal agencies are looking into the foreign teacher recruitment and employment practices of the district and its former human resources director.

“It’s a racket. You know? We’re gonna go out and find you people that will meet your needs because you can’t find qualified teachers here in America,” says Linda Bridges, president of the American Federation of Teachers in Austin. “I just think that it’s a scheme and it’s a way to abuse people. And it’s shameful the way people get treated.”

Critical of abuses

Bridges is critical of abuses by recruiting companies or school districts that have hired foreign teachers. Several years ago, her organization sued a company that recruited Indian teachers to North Forest ISD, a district recently absorbed by the Houston school district after years of financial mismanagement. She also recalls a group of Indian teachers who fell victim in Corpus Christi.

“You know, put almost all of them up in like one apartment,” she says. “No furniture. They had no transportation. Other teachers would pick them up, take them to work and took care of them. Got them established.”

In Garland, the problems span a 10-year period during which 600-plus foreign teachers were hired. They include all-expenses paid recruiting trips by the human resources director, and allegations that fees were pocketed from the teachers. Nearly two dozen teachers face deportation when their visas expire later this year.

Dallas teachers in limbo

In Dallas, 79 foreign teachers are unsure whether they’ll get to keep their jobs or have to return to their native countries. Their visas are set to expire soon, and they either haven’t been granted extensions to stay or haven't gotten their green cards. The district says the U.S. Department of Labor keeps rejecting its applications to certify the teachers’ employment.

"One of the requirements when they came into the district was that they had to complete their certification [of employment] within a year in order for the [permanent residency] process to begin,” says George Rangel, executive vice president of Alliance-AFT, the largest teachers' group in Dallas. “Well, some of the teachers have been here six years now."

In some cases, Rangel says, paperwork has sat on someone’s desk too long or not been filed correctly. Documents his group obtained from teachers contain errors like transposed Social Security numbers, misspelled names and other discrepancies.

For example, the Department of Labor points out in those documents how the district gives two different numbers of U.S. applicants rejected for a particular teaching job. In one section, the district lists six applicants were rejected. In another, it says four. That figure is important because, as the agency explains, it has to ensure there aren't "qualified" and "willing" U.S. applicants for that job.

"If truly the district was serious about taking care of these teachers – one, they would man the department, make sure that whatever paperwork goes out of there is correct and has double-checked and that’s not happening,” he says.

District filing appeals

Rangel also blames the Dallas law firm, Ramirez & Associates, hired by the district to process the visa paperwork. A call to the firm was not returned. Dallas ISD spokesman Jon Dahlander says the district isn’t going to point fingers at anyone.

“For starters, we’re going to stand by every one of these teachers and continue to file appeals on their behalf with the Department of Labor because they’re valuable to us and we want to do everything we can to keep them,” he says.

Dahlander says the district’s filed more than 200 appeals since 2012. Each year, Congress limits the number of H1-B visas that can be issued. This year, the cap’s at 85,000. Doug Stump, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, says applications are surging well past that.

“For example, this year, during that first week period that they would accept the applications, there were over 175,000 H1-B visa petitions filed for these 85,000 positions,” Stump says.

Foreign teachers fill shortages

Teacher shortages in some areas like math, science and special education are prompting districts to seek teachers on H1-B visas. In Dallas, Dahlander says the greatest need is for bilingual teachers.

"When you have a student population that is about a third of which come from homes where only Spanish is spoken, then that presents some unique challenges and part of that is going the extra mile to keep our teachers that are on H1-B visas," Dahlander says.

Things have gotten so complicated that some districts are turning away from hiring teachers with H1-B visas. In Houston, those teachers can still apply, but the district isn’t actively recruiting them. And Dallas isn’t planning to sponsor any new teachers with H1-B visas next school year.

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