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City pols are struggling to save the jobs of nearly 100 public school teachers recruited from the Caribbean. In late May, the Department of Education warned approximately 200 teachers that they would lose their positions and be forced to leave the U.S. when their visas expired in late June. Roughly half were able to get new work visas, but the remaining 98 are still scrambling.

The situation has prompted outrage from Caribbean activists, union reps, newspapers like the New York Carib News and Jamaica Gleaner—and from the teachers themselves. “We spent our life savings to relocate here,” said Judith Hall, who came from Jamaica to teach at Bronx Technical High School. “It’s really crazy having to go back home and buy air tickets for entire families.” For Hall, just nine credits shy from finishing her Master’s degree, “there’s a lot at stake.”

The teachers were hired three years ago, when city schools faced a massive shortage and began looking abroad for help. Una Clarke—then a city councilmember representing Flatbush—successfully pushed the department to recruit from the Caribbean. “These teachers are highly skilled, especially in terms of discipline and reaching out to parents,” she said, and could “bridge the cultural gap,” particularly in her community where over half the students are of Caribbean descent.

The teachers were employed at schools across the city and seemed to adapt well. Only recently have the immigration problems emerged. “Our personnel office has worked with these teachers for one-and-a-half years to encourage them to fill out the paperwork and answer their questions,” said DOE spokesperson Marge Feinberg, “These 98 did not complete their paperwork.”

But Kendall Stewart, chair of the City Council’s Immigration Committee, says it isn’t entirely the teachers’ fault: “Unlike teachers from France, who have someone to represent them from their embassy, teachers from these little islands in the Caribbean are left to fight by themselves.” Without a DOE liaison, Stewart added, “they had very little help.”
The teachers came over on temporary J-1 visas, granting them one-year stays that could be renewed for two more years. Many brought families in tow, since spouses of J-1 holders can work in this country. To remain longer, the teachers had to apply for H-1 status, which would allow them to work for six or more years. This year, however, H-1 visas were capped at 65,000, down from 195,000, and the national quota was filled by February, leaving many Caribbean teachers out in the cold.

Transferring from a J-1 to an H-1 visa is a labyrinthine process that starts with letters of “no objection” from an applicant’s home country. Yet these letters are only provided if all student loans from the government are paid off. Hall didn’t even realize she owed the Jamaican government money for her education. “I spent over a year trying to track down my inactive file,” she said. In January, she learned she had to pay $12,200, but by the time she repaid the loans in March and got her “no objection” letter, it was too late for an H-1 visa. “The letter [from the DOE] said we hadn’t filed,” said Hall, “but people had applied. The governments held up our no-objection letters.”

Winston Tucker, a lawyer at Caribbean Immigrant Services, is trying to help. “This problem has been created because of the cap,” he said. His organization and the UFT are both working with local officials in hopes of convincing the Department of State to make an exception for the teachers and expedite their visas.

Una Clarke laments the fate of her brainchild: “I think it’s going to be a big loss for New York City,” she said. “These teachers came with unique experience and training.”