Equity & Diversity

Visa Cap Jeopardizes Foreign-Teacher Hiring

By Julie Blair — October 22, 2003 5 min read
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A new federal cap on visas provided to foreign-born K-12 teachers has school districts around the country worried about filling some hard-to-staff positions.

The number of so-called H1B visas offered—those provided to workers with college diplomas in the fields of education, technology, and health care, among others—will shrink from 195,000 this year to 65,000 next year, significantly limiting the pool of people who can gain access to the United States under such provisions. Of those available slots, approximately 28,000 are already spoken for, leaving about 36,500 new openings.

Congress indirectly allowed the policy change when it permitted a provision to increase the number of visas during the technology boom in the late 1990s to “sunset” earlier this month, said Daryl R. Buffenstein, an Atlanta immigration lawyer who has followed the situation. Little, if any, discussion about it took place on Capitol Hill, he said.

Some school administrators, as a result, are already gearing up for trouble.

“This is going to be a tremendous problem for us,” said Teri L. Lyons, who heads up teacher placement for the 740,000- student Los Angeles Unified School District, which hired 50 foreign-born teachers with H1B visas this school year from several different nations. “We do recruiting in January, February, and March, and by the time we go to those countries, find individuals, and apply for the visa, the cap will be reached.”

“We’ve got to figure out some way legislatively to get Congress to go back to increasing the number,” Ms. Lyons said.

Several calls to members of Congress over the past couple weeks were not returned.

Filling a Need

Legal Entry
Foreign-born teachers can apply for two different types of visas:
H1B J-1

The H1B Specialty Occupation Program permits teachers with bachelor’s degrees to enter the United States and work in K-12 schools for three years. The visa can be renewed for a total of six years. The goal of the program is to help employers looking for skilled workers.

More than 10,000 public and private teachers entered the country with these visas during the 2002-03 school year. The Houston Independent School District brought in the most, 915, during fiscal 2002, according to a National Education Association report.

The J-1 Exchange Visitor Program allows educators who hold bachelor’s degrees to teach in the United States for about one year. The visa is renewable for a total of three years. The goal of the program is to promote cross-cultural understanding and offer instruction to visitors. Nearly 5,000 educators entered the country on J-1 visas in the 2002-03 school year to work in public and private schools.

Nationwide, districts employed more than 10,000 foreign- born teachers with H1B visas in public and private schools during the 2002-03 school year, a study conducted by the Washington-based Center for Economic Organizing on behalf of the National Education Association and released this past summer found. Moreover, demand from the K-12 sector for such visas is growing.

Teachers who receive the visas are permitted to work in the United States for three years, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. They can renew the documents once, and those are then good for another three years. Many of the teachers go on to earn green cards, which permit immigrants to continue to reside and work in this country.

“The use of temporary foreign teachers appears to have been largely driven by efforts to address perceived teacher shortages, particularly in specific disciplines ... as well as in ‘less desirable’ poor urban and rural school districts,” the report, “Trends in Foreign Teacher Recruitment,” says. “Some school districts in major cities like New York City ... Los Angeles, and Atlanta have established their own foreign-teacher-recruitment bureaus, with significant budgets and expansive global networks.”

Some districts, which serve as sponsors for teachers, even apply for the visas in bulk to assure that they have enough on hand during the hiring season, according to the report.

Such foreign-born teachers fill an important need in many schools, administrators say, taking jobs in hard-to-staff schools in urban and rural communities as well as in shortage areas such as English as a second language and special education. Moreover, many meet the requirements for “highly qualified” teachers laid out in the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Administrators add that the foreign-born instructors are good investments because they continue to work in the districts that initially hired them long after they are trained, an expensive endeavor, and expose students and staff members to other cultures.

“It’s a quality issue,” said Pam Stout, a human-resources administrator for the 33,000-student Spring Branch Independent School District in Houston, which hired 30 foreign-born teachers on H1B visas this year. “They have education degrees and were dentists and doctors in their own countries.”

‘A Time Bomb’

The effect is also expected to be felt by mid-sized and smaller school districts.

With the new limitations in place, the popular Japanese and Spanish language-immersion programs now being run in the 49,500-student Anchorage, Alaska, public schools may be in jeopardy, according to Teresa Johnson, the director of human resources for the district.

The programs are considered the jewels of the system, in part, because the educators who teach them are native speakers who impart complex content in Japanese and Spanish. It will be hard to recruit new instructors who can do that without the benefit of the H1B visa, Ms. Johnson said.

Even those who don’t recruit foreign-born teachers with H1B visas today, worry that they might want to do so in the future and won’t have the option.

“This doesn’t mean a whole lot now because we aren’t experiencing the teacher shortages we were two or three years ago, but if the economy should pick up,” said Rigo Chavez, a spokesman for the 86,000-student Albuquerque, N.M., schools, “we may be hurting again,” and seeking to import foreign-born educators.

Another option is open to school districts. Educators can apply for a J-1 visa, which was instituted to foster cultural exchange. Teachers can stay in the United States and work for approximately one year, and the document can be renewed twice, for a total of three years. After that, the immigrant often must report home.

While administrators currently rely on such efforts now—more than 4,800 J-1 visas were used by public and private school teachers in the 2002-03 school year—many districts do not want to depend solely on them. It is, they argue, too expensive to train instructors, only to have them return to their nations of origin so quickly. There are no caps on the number of J-1 visas that can be issued, however, and these individuals can also acquire green cards.

Many other districts likely will be surprised by the change in federal policy.

“It is a time bomb, in the sense that a lot of schools are blissfully unaware that this is a potential problem,” said Mr. Buffenstein, the immigration lawyer. “School districts may very well find themselves without teachers. It is that simple.”

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