Many teachers from outside the U.S. that have been teaching at Prince George's County Public Schools are now facing deportation. They protested against the Department of Labor in front of the White House last week.
The pursuit of the American dream doesn't always have a happy ending. That's certainly the case for hundreds of international teachers recruited from all over the world to work for the Prince George's County school system. These teachers are now being told they have to go home.
The teachers were recruited after administrators found it challenging to recruit what's known as "highly qualified teachers" from the U.S. to fulfill requirements after the No Child Left Behind law was enacted in 2002.
The teachers are now caught in the middle of a dispute between the school system and the U.S. Department of Labor, and some will be on flights departing Washington as soon as next week. They're trying to do what they can to fight the ruling, including by protesting in front of the White House Aug. 9.
Maria Estravez first met Prince George's County school officials when the officials came to the Philippines in 2006. She says the first question she asked them was will they sponsor her permanent residency or green card? She says they said yes, which is why she moved to Clinton, Md. where she teaches math at Stephen Decatur Middle School.
Estravez says her goal was to make her students like math. Long after the last bell, she would stay at her desk, going over lesson plans for the next day.
"The building custodians would always tell me, 'Go home! What are you doing here?'" she says. "I work hard, like really, really hard, because I want to be able to help my students."
Estravez concentrated on her class, not realizing there was a problem. She and other international teachers paid the fees associated with temporary employment visas, which should have been be paid for by the Prince George's County school district. The foreign teachers were making less than their American counterparts, which is illegal.
The U.S. Department of Labor investigated and found Prince George's County was a "willful violator," which means officials knew they were breaking the law.
The school system denies this, but was ordered to pay more than $4 million in back pay - approximately $4,000 for each teacher. They also had to pay a $100,000 fine. Under the law, Prince George's school district isn't allowed to apply for new visas for foreign teachers or renew current ones until 2014.
That means more than 250 teachers will have to leave the country by the end of the year, with hundreds more to follow.
Neither Prince George's School Superintendent William Hite nor any of the county school board members agreed to talk to WAMU for this report.
Schools spokesperson Briant Coleman issued a statement saying, "PGCPS did everything possible to retain these excellent and valued employees. However, in the final analysis of the current state of our shrinking school budget and mounting legal fees, we determined that we simply could not afford to continue to operate this program."
Several of these teachers have won awards for their work and school officials have described them as "exceptional."
"That's besides the point," said Ira Mehlman, with the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). Mehlman says renewing such temporary visas gives school districts less incentive to hire American workers. "It's admirable that they work hard and that they're good teachers, but given the unemployment situation in this country, given the teachers all across the U.S. that are being laid off, they should be able to recruit teachers from other parts of the country," he adds. "They don't need to go half way around the world."
Coleman put out a press release in April saying the loss of these teachers could have a "devastating" impact on the school system. But he refused this week to say how Prince George's was faring in finding replacements for them.
The Labor Department would not discuss this issue, but released a statement saying it is just enforcing the law.
Meanwhile Ximena Meneses, who was recruited to teach Spanish at Thomas Johnson Middle school in Lanham, Md. in 2007, is packing. Her U.S. visa expires next week. She'll have to sell her house and car. Her son won't enter 12th grade with his friends and they'll have to return home to Chile, like many of her colleagues who are getting ready to leave.
"To nothing," says Meneses. "I sold everything (to come here). I start making a life here and they just took it. I love that school. I love my students. And now, they just took it."