H-1B visa dream a nightmare for some foreign teachers

Senate Judiciary Committee member Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) (R) listens to debate during a markup session for the immigration reform legislation in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill May 20, 2013 in Washington, DC.

Arnedo Valera is an immigration lawyer and executive director of the Migrant Heritage Commission.

Eleanor Pelta is an immigration attorney with Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP

The immigration reform bill that passed the Senate would almost double the number of H-1B visas. These temporary work visas allow employers to hire foreigners for jobs they say are hard to fill, like tech jobs and positions teaching math and science. But the visas aren’t a magic bullet and can be a nightmare for workers like Ingrid Cruz. 

Cruz teaches robotics in East Baton Rouge, Louisiana. She was teacher of the year in 2010, and again this year. Cruz is from the Philippines and came to the U.S. on an H-1B visa. She makes teaching teens look effortless. But her start in East Baton Rouge in 2007 was anything but easy.

“Every day, every day my first year as soon as the bell rings and the students step out, I’d be in my closet crying," she says.

Crying over all the money she lost coming to the U.S. Cruz got her Louisiana teaching job through a Filipino recruiting agency hired by the school district. The recruiters charged a fee for every step in the process. Cruz says she ended up paying them $12,000 to $15,000 -- including 20 percent of her first year’s salary.

“I’m here, working very hard and struggling with the adjustment and somebody else is getting my money," Cruz thought.

Foreign teachers working in other parts of the U.S. have had similar problems. Arnedo Valera is an immigration lawyer. He helped some Filipino teachers in Prince George’s County, Maryland. Valera says the agency that recruited those teachers charged all kinds of fees. 

“There are instances where the recruitment company gets a fee from the school and, at the same time, collects money from the employee," he says.

The teachers ended up paying federal immigration fees and attorneys fees. Valera says the employer is supposed to cover those expenses. But the school districts say the law isn’t clear.

“It is easy to stumble and to not understand all of the rules and regulations," Eleanor Pelta, former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association explains.  "They’re very dense.  They’re very hard to follow.”

The Prince George’s County school district wouldn’t comment for this story. A lawyer for the East Baton Rouge schools told me they’re not hiring any more teachers from abroad. 

About the author

Nancy Marshall-Genzer is a senior reporter for Marketplace based in Washington, D.C. covering daily news.

Arnedo Valera is an immigration lawyer and executive director of the Migrant Heritage Commission.

Eleanor Pelta is an immigration attorney with Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP

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