www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/baltimore-city/bs-md-ci-filipino-visa-payments-20110613,0,4296390.story

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City school system to reimburse teachers for visa fees

Officials reviewing process after Prince George's County was fined millions

By Erica L. Green, The Baltimore Sun

8:44 PM EDT, June 13, 2011

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Baltimore school officials say the district will reimburse international teachers who paid out-of-pocket fees to obtain work visas, a practice that led the U.S. Department of Labor to order Prince George's County schools to pay nearly $6 million in penalties and back wages.

Tisha Edwards, chief of staff for the city school system, said the district has international teachers — the majority Filipino — who shouldered their own costs for immigration filings and fees associated with being recruited to the district.

However, the district could not say how much money it might have to pay back.

"If there are cases, and we know that there are some, where teachers have had any out-of-pocket expenses for visa filings, we are going to reimburse them for that, no problem," she said.

In April, the Department of Labor ordered Prince George's schools to pay $4.2 million in back wages to Filipino teachers who had to pay $1,000 in visa fees when they were hired. The county was also fined $1.7 million.

The agency objected to the fee arrangement involving Prince George's Filipino teachers because foreign workers can be hired through an H-1B program only if they get the same salary an American worker would. Because they had to pay visa fees, Filipino teachers were left with a lower salary than American teachers.

Using the same hiring practices as Prince George's County's, Baltimore began hiring large numbers of Filipinos in 2005 on H-1B visas, when it did not have enough qualified applicants for teaching jobs in critical subjects such as math, science and special education. There are roughly 600 Filipino teachers in the district.

The city hired its Filipino teachers through employment firms in the Philippines; each teacher paid about $10,000 to find a job and get to the United States. The fee encompassed immigration filings and costs charged by the employment firms.

It is unclear whether the Department of Labor is investigating the Baltimore school system because the agency only comments on closed investigations.

There have been issues with Filipino teachers' visas in other parts of the country as well. The American Federation of Teachers joined other groups in a class action lawsuit last year on behalf of about 500 Filipino teachers in East Baton Rouge, La., and surrounding districts, alleging that recruiters used the guise of the H-1B program to defraud the Filipino teachers out of thousands of dollars in recruitment fees.

Baltimore school officials said the district has to review its records to determine the magnitude of the debt, because, "it's hard to know what was done in the past, so we have been reconstructing information," Edwards said. "Our goal is to make sure everything is done correctly."

As of May, Edwards said, no teachers are paying their own filing fees.

According to local immigration attorney Raymond O. Griffith, the fee for renewing visas is about $325, though the application for permanent residency can be more costly when attorney fees are factored in. Original H-1B visa filings incur at least a $825 fee.

About 300 Filipino teachers in Baltimore are now facing crucial visa deadlines or will have to seek permanent residency this year. The district is helping teachers with those applications.

More than 25 teachers faced a May 31 deadline to file for renewals of their work visas, and 110 teachers face a June 30 deadline.

School officials said that about 200 teachers — dozens of whom will likely have to return to the Philippines before September — must seek U.S. citizenship this year because they have run out of renewal options for work visas. H-1B visas can be renewed once, but not for more than six years total.

The majority of the teachers in question represent a group who came to Baltimore between 2005 and 2007. At the time, the district didn't have enough qualified teachers to fill positions.

But the district is currently struggling to meet federal immigration standards that require it to prove a need for its Filipino teachers when there are American educators vying for the same jobs.

Other districts have avoided these situations. For example, Baltimore County no longer has any Filipino teachers, according to Donald A. Peccia, assistant superintendent of human resources for the county school system.

Peccia said the district did "spot hiring" rather than "mass hiring," and no more than 35 foreign educators were teaching in the district at one time. The county's international teachers went back to the Philippines after their visas expired about two years ago, he said.

He said the county also declined to sponsor its international teachers for permanent residency. "We had lots of discussions beforehand," Peccia said, "but decided there were other obligations that we didn't want to assume."

erica.green@baltsun.com