The visas of about 25 Baltimore public school teachers will expire at the end of this month, forcing the foreign educators to return to countries they haven’t considered home for years.
The majority of these teachers came from the Philippines as part of a massive recruitment effort by the district in the mid-2000s to fill empty math, science and special education positions.
Since they arrived, district officials said, they have become leaders in schools across Baltimore, enrolled their children in local universities and made their homes in the city.
“These are long-term teachers who we value and we want to be able to keep them here,” said the system’s chief human capital officer, Jeremy Grant-Skinner. “We are at the mercy of the federal government in terms of securing the extension of their visas.”
Grant-Skinner said the district applied months ago to extend the work visas, but processing by the federal government has dragged on as the teachers’ cases were selected for an audit. It could be another six to eight months before federal officials decide whether to extend the teachers’ visas, he said.
A handful of the affected Filipino teachers declined through a union spokeswoman to be interviewed, citing a fear of putting their visa extensions in jeopardy.
Elliott Rauh, who works alongside one of the Filipino teachers at Vanguard Collegiate Middle School, said the teacher — who has been in the district for more than a decade — was his mentor during his first year at the school. He called her the “ideal model” of what an educator is supposed to be. Together, they teach sixth, seventh and eighth graders diagnosed with autism.
The Filipino teacher, who did not want to be identified, wasn’t able to attend a recent eighth grade graduation ceremony. Rauh said she was too busy “packing up her house and her life.”
“She took me under her wing and trained me,” Rauh said. “It’s head-scratching to me that people who are highly trained, highly effective and highly qualified and who are filling a role that’s underserved are now being asked to pack their bags, go home and just only potentially be invited back. It makes no sense.”
The students in Rauh’s special education class “thrive on regularity and routine,” he said, but now must deal with the absence of their beloved teacher.
“It’s so disheartening,” he said. “The biggest losers in this situation are the kids.”
The teachers are here on H-1B visas, which allow employers to hire foreign workers for “specialty occupations” for which there is a shortage of skilled Americans. The visas enable recipients to stay for an initial three years, with the possibility of extensions.
School districts in Dallas, Houston and Los Angeles also have relied on the program to recruit qualified teachers for hard-to-fill spots. Many of the other recipients of H-1B visas work in the technology sector, often as software engineers or programmers.
Some conservatives, including President Donald J. Trump, have long criticized the program, arguing that it takes jobs away from American workers. Trump signed an executive order last year instructing the federal government to reassess the program, which brings in 85,000 foreign workers annually.
The announcement led to months of heightened anxiety among the roughly 250 foreign teachers still working in Baltimore public schools this year.
“I’m sad that this administration has made this so difficult,” said Baltimore Teachers Union President Marietta English. “Their attitude toward immigration is really a detriment to the country. These teachers come dedicated. They’re not one or two years and then done. They’re here and it’s just very unfortunate they have to go back.”
Jeff Gorsky, senior counsel at immigration law firm Berry Appleman & Leiden, said the teachers’ situation reflects the ways the Trump White House has worked to stymie the visa process through “administrative burdens.”
“The administration has been doing everything they can to slow down and gum up the process,” he said.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
The teachers learned their fate last week in a meeting that included Grant-Skinner, English, schools CEO Sonja Santelises and a representative from the Filipino embassy.
Administrators told them that they would be offered positions within the school district when they’re able to return to the country. The district is working with a Washington-based immigration law firm as the teachers go through the process.
“We reiterated to them that we’ll continue on their behalf to push for decisions on their applications,” Grant-Skinner said.
According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, a person’s lawful status in this country ends when their visa expires, even if they have “timely applied” for an extension.
The agency generally will defer any removal proceedings until after the process is completed.
“Nevertheless, [the Department of Homeland Security] may bring a removal proceeding against you, even if you have an application for extension of status pending,” according to the agency.
A spokesman for the agency said they can’t provide case-specific details about the cause of a delay.
Most of the teachers must leave by the end of the month, but one has to leave this week before the school year ends. Two are Jamaican and the rest are Filipino, according to district officials.
Baltimore sent recruiters to the Philippines starting in 2005, aiming to find teachers to fill positions the school system typically struggles to secure qualified candidates for: math, science and special education. The Southeast Asian country had a surplus of education majors and has a largely English-speaking population.
Hundreds of Filipino teachers moved to Baltimore over the next several years, drawn to America by the chance to earn a higher salary and find new opportunities. Some left families, including young children, behind.
Over the years, many have assimilated, Grant-Skinner said, and talk about Baltimore as “home.”
Still, they have faced periodic concerns about their futures in this country.
A Department of Labor study found in 2012 that there was a large supply of U.S. citizens vying for the positions currently occupied by foreign teachers. That year, the Baltimore district only sponsored renewals for 46 of the 154 Filipino teachers whose work visas were expiring.
The Rev. William Au serves as pastor at Baltimore’s Shrine of the Sacred Heart Church, where a large portion of his parishioners are Filipino. He said he’s hopeful the teachers in his parish and others can come back as soon as possible.
“As a pastor, I’m really sad that these people who have been such devoted teachers and such a service to the city are being forced to leave,” he said. “The city is the loser here, and the state of Maryland.”