It only takes two unscrupulous school district administrators to unravel the lives of nearly two dozen teachers in a Texas surburb. When administrators recruited foreign teachers from the Philippines, Mexico, Colombia, and other countries to accommodate the growing Latino population in a Dallas suburb, they allegedly promised to help secure permanent residency for teachers. Instead those teachers, the majority of whom have worked for years at the Garland Independent School District (GISD), are now facing deportation.
Over the past decade, the GISD filed 642 H1-B work visa applications to fill bilingual teaching positions, even though “similarly sized Dallas schools were recruiting 17 to 23 foreign teachers annually,” according to a CBS Dallas-Fort Worth affiliate.
The H1-B visa is a “non-immigrant visa” that does not provide a pathway to securing legal permanent residency and maxes out after six years. Organizations can sponsor foreign workers for permanent residency however. Twenty-three teachers alleged that the GISD made that promise and even accepted fees to do so. The school never followed through with sponsorship and has maintained the actions of a few school district officials do not speak for the school itself.
According to Jones, Victor Leos, the GISD Human Resources executive director, committed a succession of H1-B recruitment abuse: he required would-be teachers to pay for interviews, orientation training, and took payment when they were hired. When those teachers made it to the United States, Leos told them to rent from his stepson, Paul Reudiger (a GISD teacher), who has a rental house. When the teachers needed an American immigration lawyer, Leos directed them to his stepdaughter’s law firm, which bills both the teachers and the school district. Jones said, “When the math teacher is confused, only Mr. Leos or his step-daughter at the Yu law firm are allowed to provide answers.”
Jones’ investigation also found that Associate Superintendent Dr. Gary Reeves repeatedly ignored legitimate complaints, including a 2012 Department of Labor (DOL) audit that resulted in a $225,000 payment of back wages to foreign teachers for violations between 2005 and 2009. Even after he found out about Leos’ plan, Reeves didn’t hold Leos accountable, did not discontinue relations with Leos’ law firm connection, and simply told Leos to “get with this guy. Fix it.” after receiving an email regarding corruption in the H1-B program. Both Reeves and Ruefiger are on administrative leave during the investigation. As late as February, Reeves denied any knowledge of Leos’ actions. Leos “retired” in January. Reeves’ office did not immediately return ThinkProgress’ call on Wednesday.
It’s unclear whether Superintendent Bob Morrison had any knowledge of what Leos and Reeves had been up to, but it’s almost assuredly impossible to not have known that something was up given that the DOL found irregularities in the H1-B program. Still, one thing is clear: Morrison will likely not move forward with permanent residency for the teachers involved “due to the limits of existing U.S. Immigration law.” At the press conference, Morrison expressed his condolences, saying, “Unfortunately, some H1-B visa teachers who have served this district well have been negatively impacted. To that extent, I am deeply sorry for the circumstances which have occurred.”
‘No one told me that we would be disposable material’
In late March, ThinkProgress spoke with a handful of the affected teachers who have each taught within the school district for at least seven years. This year, the four educators have a collective class load of about 290 students. The teachers all said that they were promised permanent residence sponsorship at the time they were hired.
“We trusted them because they are our employers,” Elizabeth Niño said. She is the only teacher that ThinkProgress spoke with who is not in imminent threat of removal. Her visa extension was approved last year, but will not be renewed again next year. “I completely trusted them in this whole process … due to numerous errors from the district, my [permanent residency] process was denied twice. …The district hired me in Mexico at a job fair. The Human Resources guy was in Mexico — he was the one who hired me, the one who told me that [after] one year of teaching, we can sponsor you, we will guide you legally. … I had really good evaluations, but my [permanent] residency application was denied in 2011. We never had access to our information.”
Francisco Marcano, 41, is the English as a Second Language Department Chair and lead teacher at the Jackson Technology Center in Garland. Marcano’s H1-B case has been audited twice, leaving him feeling “stranded,” by the school district. His visa will expire in September and while he is hoping that his H1-B will be extended, he said that the best way to end his frustration would be if the school district sponsors him for permanent residency.
“I have always been in legal status,” he added. “Immigration reform wouldn’t even help us because we did it legally. …I was simply naïve. No one told me that we would be disposable material. What kind of message are they sending? No one should be suffering the consequences because we followed the law.”
Bernardo Montes, 41, is teaching the third grade this year. He accused the lawyers at Yu Law firm of poorly handling his H1-B case. Montes’ case was denied twice– once in 2010, then again in late 2012. He said, “The reason I know is because I have a ‘copy of denial’ and [the DOL] said that one of the reason that they denied [my] case is because the district failed to show documentation. Under these lawyers and the school district, we were not allowed to see our files.”
He added, “I came to Garland based on the job offer. After one or two years of showing good work, the district [said that they] would help us with our green cards. … I was told by HR to go to their lawyers and I was asking if I can go to other lawyers, but they told me that I have use theirs because those lawyers have been working for this district and know what they’re doing.”
The lawyers charged him for paperwork fees for his application and his wife’s H-4 application. Montes has paid between $2,800 and $3,000 each time he had to renew his H1-B visa — fees that the school should have paid. Montes’ visa expires at the end of September, but he is worried because he has a nine-year-old U.S. citizen daughter and he doesn’t know if he would want to bring her back to his native Colombia.
Alfonso Casares Tafur, 43, is a high school Spanish teacher to 180 students. He has been nominated for a teaching award. His passport expires in August so in the immediate future, he hopes that the school will file an extension. What keeps him fighting to stay in Garland is his seven-year-old son who would have a difficult adjusting to Colombia. He said, “They said during [my initial] interview, if we do a great job, if our performance is excellent, we would have the opportunity –we would be helped with our legal permanent residency.”
It happens elsewhere
It’s not unheard of for people involved in the recruiting process to exploit the overseas teacher program and make teachers pay for their own fees. In 2011, the Prince George, Maryland school district was assessed more than $5.9 million in penalties and fees for violating labor laws, including not having paid for processing and payment fees for the 1,044 teachers who received H-1B visas. The school district was debarred from participating in the H-1B program between March 2012 to March 2014. Since 2005, the Labor Department has investigated 17 similar cases, including one case that involved 12 visa-holders and another case in East Baton Rouge, Louisiana in which labor contractors “cheated the foreign workers out of money they were owed,” as the Washington Post pointed out. Ingrid Cruz, a robotics teacher in East Baton Rouge, paid roughly $12,000 to $15,000 and 20 percent of her first year’s salary after recruiters hired by the school district charged her a “fee for every step in the process.”
The school district’s general counsel, Justin Graham, said Thursday, “We’ve [helped sponsor permanent residency] in some cases and we’re continuing to do that in some cases, however when that petition is denied … we have no legal responsibility to appeal that decision. And once that appeal is denied, we have no legal responsibility to appeal that appeal. … I can tell you that the district does not have the authority to promise permanent residency. No one currently has promised them permanent residency.”
He added, “So long as the [teachers] are here lawfully, we will continue to employ them.”
A spokesman for the school also said the fees would be reimbursed.