By: Ana Campoy on June 4, 2014
Texas District Allegedly Exploited H-1B Program in Recruiting Teachers From Overseas.
GARLAND, Texas—As this city outside Dallas turned heavily Hispanic over the past decade, its school district recruited foreign teachers like Bernardo Montes-Rodríguez, a Colombian, with the promise of a green card.
Now Mr. Montes and dozens of other teachers are uncertain whether they will be able to permanently settle in the U.S., as federal agencies investigate the Garland Independent School District for allegedly exploiting the worker visa program under which they were hired.
Widely known as a way to bring in tech workers, the H-1B visa program allows employers to hire skilled foreigners for hard-to-fill positions, from software engineer to science teacher. And school districts around the country have used them to hire thousands of foreign teachers.
But the Texas case is the latest example in a string of alleged misuses of the program in schools.
Since 2001, the U.S. Department of Labor has found more than 2,000 H-1B violations by individual schools, districts or boards, agency records show. In contrast, in a single-tech company category—custom computer programming—there were about 4,300 violations in roughly the same period. The tech sector traditionally accounts for the biggest number of workers brought in under the program.
In Garland, a city of about 234,000 people, school administrators investigating the matter said in April they discovered that international recruits had been hired not to increase the ranks of Spanish-speaking teachers, as intended, but instead, they allege, to enrich a district executive and his associates, who charged immigrants hefty fees for legal and other services.
In a sign that the program was being misused, officials allege, the district hired teachers through a recruitment firm in the Philippines, where Spanish isn't the official language. They paid $1,000 for an interview with the district's head of human resources, Victor Leos, and $5,000 if they were hired, the district said. Mr. Leos, who retired from the district earlier this year, declined to comment for this article.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation confirmed they are investigating the case but declined to comment further.
The school district is cooperating with authorities, and says it also is trying to help the foreign teachers rectify their visa paperwork. About a dozen have visas that are set to expire in coming months, including Mr. Montes, 41 years old, who has taught in the district for seven years.
"I'm feeling betrayed, taken advantage of," he said.
Many of the foreign teachers hired in Garland obtained the promised green card, even as they were allegedly tricked out of thousands of dollars. But it is unclear how many of the 200 H-1B-visa holders the district still employs will be eligible to become permanent residents, given that they appear to have been hired as part of an alleged profit-making scheme. Employers sponsoring a foreign worker for a green card must prove that no Americans are qualified for the job.
"We still have to show the need at the end of the day," Garland Schools Superintendent Bob Morrison said.
Similar guest-worker disputes have led to legal action against other school districts around the country.
Maryland's Prince George's County Public Schools, for instance, was ordered in 2011 to refund $4.2 million to some 1,000 foreign teachers who paid legal fees that should have been covered by the school system.
School officials have said they were unaware that teachers weren't supposed to pay the fees. In a statement, the district said it would "fully exhaust all domestic applicant pools" before applying for foreign teacher visas again.
In Louisiana, a group of Filipino teachers sued the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board and a recruitment agency in 2010, accusing them of charging them exorbitant fees. The board and the recruitment agency denied any wrongdoing. A jury found the recruitment firm guilty of not properly disclosing the fees and awarded the teachers $4.5 million. Allegations against the school board were dismissed.
Still, some say H-1B visas are necessary to fill a shortage of specialized teachers. School districts "do it because they cannot find all the teachers they need in any other way," said Mehron Azarmehr, an Austin-based immigration lawyer.
But others say the visas are prone to abuse. School administrators applying for an H-1B on behalf of a foreign job applicant only have to attest they weren't able to find a suitable U.S. candidate. That makes it "easy for schools to bring in teachers on temporary visas whenever they like, but much too difficult to keep them after they have put in years of dedicated service," said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the nation's second-largest teachers union, in a statement.
The Garland school district has filed 642 H-1B applications since 2001. During the same period, comparable districts nearby filed fewer than 25 applications.
Several teachers alleged that Mr. Leos promised them the district would sponsor them for permanent residency if they performed well. Some of the foreign hires were directed to rent housing from his stepson, and referred to a law firm where Mr. Leos's stepdaughter worked, the district said. Abraham Yu, an executive with the firm, denied any wrongdoing. The stepdaughter and stepson couldn't be reached for comment.
The alleged misuse of the visa program has also raised concerns that some American teachers may have been pushed out to make room for fee-paying foreign teachers.
"They've harmed a lot of people, not just the foreign teachers," said one former educator, Delaina Sims.
The district has found no evidence of that, according to its lawyer. Mr. Morrison, the district superintendent, said it has taken measures to ensure visas aren't mishandled again.
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