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Trump order on visas worries city's foreign teachers

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump's decision to review a foreign worker visa program to ensure jobs are "offered to American workers first" has caused uncertainty for urban school districts such as Baltimore's that have long relied on teachers from overseas to augment their staff.

Trump signed an executive order this week directing federal agencies to reassess the H-1B visa program, which allows companies to hire 85,000 highly skilled foreign workers a year. While most are employed by computer and software firms, the visa is also used by doctors, fashion models and teachers.

Baltimore City Public Schools, which a decade ago hired hundreds of Filipinos to work in classrooms, still employs nearly 200 teachers on H-1B visas — one of the largest concentrations in the nation. School districts in Dallas, Houston and Los Angeles are among those that also rely on the program.

"It really is disconcerting," said Rogie Legaspi, who came to Baltimore from the Philippines in 2008 on an H-1B visa and now teaches life sciences at Hamilton Elementary/Middle School. "We're always on pins and needles."

Legaspi, who like others in the program has been seeking permanent legal status for years, said he and his family have never been comfortable settling down, have never bought a house and have never fully unpacked their belongings out of fear they will be forced to leave the country quickly.

"We need to know we can just up and leave," he said.

Facing teacher shortages and more stringent federal qualification requirements approved under the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, districts across the country stepped up their overseas recruitment in the mid-2000s. But in 2012, a study required by the Department of Labor found a larger supply of U.S. citizens willing to teach in Baltimore. Since then, the number of H-1B teachers has fallen.

Conservatives have targeted the program for that very reason, arguing it displaces American workers. Then-candidate Trump said last year that the workers are brought to the U.S. "for the explicit purpose of substituting for American workers at lower pay" and that he would "end forever" the use of the visas "as a cheap labor program."

Trump reiterated those same themes Tuesday in Kenosha, Wis., where he signed the order.

"Right now, widespread abuse in our immigration system is allowing American workers of all backgrounds to be replaced by workers brought in from other countries to fill the same job for sometimes less pay," Trump said. "This will stop."

But despite the attention given to the "Hire American" executive order, the document itself made no practical change to the H-1B program. Instead, the departments of Homeland Security and Labor, among others, have been tasked with reviewing the program and suggesting changes to ensure the visas are awarded to "the most-skilled or highest-paid" applicants.

It is not clear how the administration would determine which applicants are the "most skilled" middle school math teachers, for instance. It's also not clear how long the review process will take.

A State Department official did not address questions from The Baltimore Sun about how teachers would be handled by the review, saying only that "we are not going to prejudge the outcome of this review." An official with the Department of Homeland Security said it is premature to discuss potential changes.

The Department of Labor certified 17,072 H-1B positions in Maryland in 2015, the latest data available. More than two-thirds of those positions work in computers and software.

In all, the H-1B workers represent nearly four times the number of workers who received H-2B visas in Maryland, a program arguably better known in the state because it is used to hire foreigners for crab-picking and oyster-shucking on the Eastern Shore.

Though the H-2B visas have also been controversial and the subject of litigation, Trump's order was silent on them.

Johns Hopkins University was certified to have more than 400 H-1B positions in Maryland in 2015, making it the largest employer of the workers in the state. Dozens of biologists, biochemists and "medical scientists" at Hopkins are in the country on H-1B visas, according to Department of Labor data.

A spokeswoman for the university said Hopkins is reviewing the executive order to evaluate the potential impact.

School systems in Anne Arundel and St. Mary's counties were also certified for H-1B employees, albeit in much smaller numbers.

The Baltimore school system was also one of the state's largest H-1B employers, even though it now has only about a quarter of its original contingent of Filipinos, Legaspi said. Most are teaching in science, math and special education. Baltimore schools employ 5,158 classroom teachers in all, a spokeswoman said.

"The teachers who are on H1B visas with city schools were hired to teach in high-need subject areas and are valuable members of the city schools community," said Anne Fullerton, a spokeswoman for the system. "We remain committed to these teachers and to supporting them in the immigration process."

Fullerton said the district is reviewing the impact of the order and did not see a substantial impact "at this moment."

Still, the anxiety is real.

Meddo Swaby came to St. Mary's County Public Schools from Jamaica in 2008 on an H-1B visa and now teaches English and theater in the district. Like Legaspi, she has applied for permanent legal status, and is hopeful the latest order — and the recommendations that come out of the study — will not affect that process.

Swaby had spent time in the United States before joining the school system and said she "realized that there was a space for me to work and to contribute to a community that would have me."

Swaby, 43, said the district and the community have embraced the eight teachers who came with her on H-1B visas.

"The media talk about all of the workers going to Silicon Valley, but that's not the full narrative," she said. "I'm anxious about it, and I'm also anxious about those who are at the beginning of this process."

john.fritze@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jfritze

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