Education
2:29 pm
Fri April 4, 2014

As Their Visas Expire, Nearly Two Dozen Garland Teachers Face Deportation

Nearly two dozen teachers from other countries in the Garland Independent School District are on the verge of losing their jobs and getting deported. They say they didn’t do anything wrong. Their visas are about to expire and federal officials are investigating.

Bernardo Montes Rodriguez came to the U.S. from Colombia 10 years ago. He started out as a teacher in New Jersey before landing a job teaching third-graders at Hillside Academy in Garland. He thought he’d be on a path to permanent residency by now.

Instead, he’s one of 23 teachers who face deportation when their visas expire. He says the district mishandled their case, which the Department of Homeland Security is investigating.

“The truth is they made mistakes in our cases,” Rodriguez said. “In my case, my [permanent residency] case was denied twice because they didn’t provide the right documentation when my case was audited.”

Rodriguez and the other teachers say they’re fed up and want some answers. They’ve pleaded before the Garland school board and community members have rallied around them.

“I don’t understand the reason. I’m telling the truth. I did everything the human resources director told me to do,” Rodriguez said. “I did everything the lawyers also told me to do, so what did I do wrong? They did something wrong and now they’re telling me to go.”

District says its hands are tied

Garland school officials say they’re cooperating with the investigation, which comes after a Department of Labor audit and the district’s own internal investigation. Spokesman Chris Moore said some employees here on visas reported concerns they had on a district anonymous tip line last fall. He says the district’s hands are tied right now.

“We are bound by law when their immigration or their visa status is no longer active,” Moore said. “We cannot employ them legally.”

Two employees have been placed on administrative leave and one — the human resources director – retired. The district also cut ties with the law firm it used to process the visa paperwork. It’s also paid back wages totaling more than $224,000 to the Department of Labor for fees the employees paid. Under federal law, a sponsoring entity must pay for processing H1-B visas, not the employees. In this case, Moore said some of the employees had been instructed to pay the fees.

‘These are good teachers’

Moore said he feels for the teachers.

“These are good teachers. They are highly qualified teachers,” he said. “They were brought into the district to fill needs and voids that are there to assist our students and they’ve done excellent jobs. As long as their visa is sponsored, we’ll continue to employ them.”

Garland has about 280 teachers on H1-B visas. The visas are granted for three years but can be extended for up to six. These teachers thought they’d apply for permanent residency and get a green card.

“We came here with a promise that, you know, we were going to become permanent residents, and honestly, we have been stranded in step one — which was supposed to last around 90 days — we have been in the same step for seven years.”

That’s Francisco Javier Marcano, who’s originally from Venezuela. The 41-year-old teaches English as a Second Language at Jackson Technology Center.

“We all know the intricacy of the immigration process, but this broke its own record,” he said.

Support from students

Some of the teachers came to the U.S. on their own. Others are married or have children. Maria Casares Tafur, from Colombia says she’s worried about her 7-year-old son Nicolas. Her husband, Alfonso, is a Spanish teacher at Lakeview Centennial High School.

“He doesn’t know anybody there,” she says. “We have relatives. He may go and visit, but he doesn’t have his friends, his school and his environment. So it’s going to be really hard for him, too.”

Alfonso Tafur says he’s heard from many students at his school.

“Some students, they come to me and they say, ‘We’re with you,’ ” Tafur said. ” ‘This is totally wrong. What is going on with these people?’ ”

Elizabeth Niño de Rivera, a bilingual teacher at Ethridge Elementary, was recruited at a job fair in Mexico. She says her application for residency has been audited twice. That has left her feeling uneasy.

“I haven’t been able to plan anything,” Niño de Rivera said. “I haven’t been able to buy a house. I haven’t been able to move on, start like a master’s degree or anything, because I don’t have anything for sure.”

Until the case is resolved, Rivera and the other teachers say their life is at a standstill.

Homeland Security officials say they can’t comment on an open investigation.

Listen to the story on KERA's Class of '17 education blog.