Garland ISD's foreign teachers aren't in danger of being sent back to their native countries because the human resources director might have been taking all-expense paid trips to the Philippines, or pocketing fees he wasn't supposed to be charging in the first place, or illegally funneling business to his step-kids, although all those things did happen. They're in danger of being sent back because their H1-B visas are set to expire and the U.S. Department of Labor keeps denying their appeals for permanent residency.
This isn't just a Garland issue. It's an issue for every school district that recruits bilingual teachers from abroad. Like Dallas ISD.
DISD employs several hundred teachers on H1-B visas. The district can't promise the teachers it recruits that they'll be allowed to stay in the U.S. beyond six years -- the H1-B is a nonimmigrant visa -- but it can help them apply for permanent residency.
This system "has worked well for a long time, and we've had many teachers go through it for many years," says DISD spokesman Jon Dahlander.
About two years ago, though, something changed, and the DOL began rejecting teachers' applications for labor certification, a key step toward obtaining a green card. According to the district, the approval rate dropped to around 20 percent.
The district has challenged the rejections -- it has filed 210 appeals since 2012 -- but has had no luck. An immigration attorney we spoke with suggested the district's having a tough time convincing the federal administrative law judges who hear the cases that they can't find qualified bilingual Americans (i.e. those with a bachelor's degree and a willingness to complete a teacher-certification program).
George Rangel, executive vice president at Alliance-AFT, has been working with some of the DISD teachers whose H1-B visas are set to expire and says the district is to blame for some of the problems. The office overseeing the applications has poor oversight and is in constant state of flux, he says, with a near constant turnover in leadership.
This leads to a lot of avoidable mistakes -- typos and clerical errors that cause many applications to automatically be rejected. Rangel says it also doesn't help that DISD funnels these requests through one law firm, Ramirez & Associates.
"The outcome is very poor, and the outcome should be a lot better, and the outcome would be a lot better if the district allowed the employees to seek their own counsel," Rangel says.
Teachers were particularly upset in November when they received a letter, embedded below, informing them that the district was discontinuing the appeals process for some teachers.
As the situation persists, Dallas ISD is prepared to resubmit a 4th application for Labor Certification if needed. We honestly hope the Department of Labor reconsiders the prior denials and approves the new applications; our children are benefiting on a daily basis from your expertise and rich cultural background. The [Human Capital Management] Department has tried all possible avenues to maintain your employment in our schools.
This is the last time that an ALC and H1B extension will be submitted on your behalf. In the meantime, you should report to work as long as your current H1B visa is active or there is a pending extention approval by DHS for your H-1B status.
Dahlander says the district's announcement that it would stop filing appeals is "something that was resolved a couple of days ago."
"We're going to stand by every one of these teachers," he says.
He estimates that DISD has about 70 employees whose H1-B visas are set to expire at the end of the school year. Rangel put the figure at just south of 100. Dahlander promised to get back with the exact number.
That's just a stopgap, however. DISD says on its website that it doesn't plan to sponsor new H1-B visas in the 2014-15 school year, meaning the district will have to find bilingual teachers elsewhere. Dahlander says the district may rely more heavily on J-1 or "Exchange Visitor Program" visas, which offers a shorter stay without the hope of a green card, and has an ongoing recruitment effort in Puerto Rico, whose residents are already U.S. citizens.
"Part of what we need to do too is talk with the Department of Labor and explain to them our situation," Dahlander says. "Ultimately ... they're here because we asked them to be here, they're here because they speak Spanish and they can communicate with students in their native language."
Losing those teachers would be an acute but surmountable pain for DISD. Longer-term, though, might difficulties with the H1-B program make it harder to find enough bilingual teachers?
"We hope not," Dahlander says.
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Correction: This post originally stated DISD was recruiting teachers from Puerto Rico under the H1-B program. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens and thus don't need visas to teach in DISD.
Send your story tips to the author, Eric Nicholson.