Three Sets of Victims in the Latest H-1B Scandal

By David North on August 6, 2010

A group of about 350 H-1B teachers from the Philippines, working in Louisiana, have been badly exploited by a recruiting agency, according to a recent article in USA Today.

I sense that there was not one, but three sets of victims of this scheme.

It is inevitable that as long as the government loosely manages its numerous guestworker programs, stories like this will appear, and they will reveal mere tips of the proverbial icebergs. In this instance "it was close to slavery," according to the lawyers bringing the case. The teachers were "charged exorbitant application fees, and transportation and housing costs" and had to pay up to 30 percent of their salaries to middlemen their first two years, according to the report.

It went on to say that the scheme started in 2007 and that each of the teachers paid about $16,000 to the labor contractor to obtain the jobs. Typically, they had to borrow the money, a very large sum in that country. Bringing the suit against the scheme was the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and the American Federation of Teachers, using the services of Covington & Burling, the big D.C. law firm. The suit was filed in a federal court in California, the home base of the labor contractor.

As is its wont, USA Today just touched on the most superficial aspects of the story, the deplorable way the teachers were treated, but it missed completely the other two sets of victims in the situation. These are the American teachers who were not hired as a result of this scheme and, presumably, many of the children who were taught by the imported teachers.

While there is clearly no shortage of American school teachers – they keep getting laid off by strapped local governments – the Louisiana school districts were able to persuade the (apparently sleepy) Labor and Homeland Security departments that they had to go outside the U.S. to find the teachers they needed. There is always a surplus of Filipino teachers, and many of them work in Guam and in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands; the wage levels offered in depressed Louisiana must have looked very attractive to them at first glance.

I worry about the U.S. teachers who were displaced as well as the school children. While the Filipino teachers presumably had the formal credentials, would it not make more sense for American kids to have teachers of English, say, who grew up speaking that language? And would it not be preferable to have American history and civics taught by people who were surrounded by it growing up? Later on in life, say at college, is a better time for students to work with foreign-born teachers.

Then there was an experience I had with an alien teacher while helping graduate students at the University of Maryland-College Park with their income taxes (a volunteer stint every year). One of our customers in recent years was a math teacher from Sierra Leone who got his green card from the Prince George's County (Md.) school district, one of the main users of foreign teachers in the nation. Here was a math teacher who came to us year after year for help with the income tax, which is simply a series of math problems. His accent was so thick I wondered how well he could teach American kids. Further, P.G. County had demoted him from full-time to substitute teacher, but he kept his green card. And his finances were in shambles. I doubt that he is typical of the overseas teachers, but he certainly was an example of what you can get when you hire teachers without a face-to-face interview.

Three other aspects of this case should be noted.

First, this is one of those many instances in which migrants ruthlessly exploit their countrymen, the subject of a previous blog. The people who ran this scam are Filipinos, as are their victims. One of the conspirators was Lourdes Navarro, who had earlier been convicted of defrauding California's Medicare system of more than $1 million; her brother, also involved in both cases, escaped arrest and is now in the Philippines, according to the SPLC press release.

Ms. Lourdes, SPLC reported, had also pleaded guilty to money laundering in New Jersey. A person of that same name, also located in California, had been caught up in the courts on an immigration charge, but the courts' electronic records system, PACER, had only incomplete data on what happened to her case, which went all the way to the Ninth Circuit.

Did Labor or DHS run a name-check on the middlemen? Did the school districts? It does not look like it.

Second, while the principal culpability rests with the Navarro family, the school districts must share some of the blame. How could hundreds of teachers be having these problems and the schools' leadership not know about it? Maybe they knew but did not care.

Only one of the school districts hiring these teachers, the one in East Baton Rouge, was included in the lawsuit, which is too bad.

Third, and this was not raised by either SPLC or the teachers' union, one of the reasons why teachers are sometimes hard to find is because the school systems and the union both insist that teachers have formal teacher-training education. There are plenty of college graduates who did not go to teaching schools who would nonetheless make fine teachers. The excellent education provided at the nation's top prep schools – Groton, Exeter, Andover and the like – is largely offered by people with college degrees, but without formal education credits.

This was not SPLC's first venture into the realm of abused guest workers. Four years ago it ran a major campaign against the abuses of foreign workers who had been brought into the South as guestworkers in the forest industries.