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Foreign Teachers in D.C. Exploited by Exchange Program, Lawsuit Alleges

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In a new lawsuit, the attorney general for the District of Columbia has accused a teacher-exchange program of allegedly misleading, threatening, and exploiting foreign teachers working in the city's public schools. 

According to the suit, the Washington-based Bilingual Teacher Exchange and other related companies run by Earl Francisco Lopez have been exploiting foreign teachers who want to teach in the United States through a federal visa program since at least 2015. The companies charged teachers exorbitantly high fees, did not provide promised support services, and even threatened teachers with deportation to coerce them into signing contracts. 

At least 45 foreign-exchange teachers who were recruited by these companies are currently working in traditional public schools and public charter schools in Washington. Many of these teachers come from Colombia and are teaching Spanish-language and bilingual education courses. 

The U.S. State Department's J-1 visa program allows foreign teachers to work full-time in U.S. schools for three years, with a possible two-year extension. According to the attorney general's office, these teachers do have to pay an annual fee to cover the cost of visa processing—but it's typically between $1,000 and $1,500. The Bilingual Teacher Exchange was charging teachers in D.C. between $3,700 and $13,000 in fees. 

Teachers were misled into thinking that they had to sign a contract with the Bilingual Teacher Exchange in order to work in D.C. schools, the lawsuit alleges. But the Bilingual Teacher Exchange is not a sponsor authorized by the State Department—it's a third-party recruiter and acted as an intermediary for a North Carolina-based company that is a true sponsor. Teachers did not have to work with the Bilingual Teacher Exchange to get a job with D.C. public schools.

The Bilingual Teacher Exchange also promised teachers assistance with placement in schools, travel, and orientation, as well as professional development. But the lawsuit alleges that teachers received little to no support from the program, and had to secure their own employment offers and arrange and pay for their own transportation to the United States. The program told teachers that if they didn't make monthly payments or sign subsequent annual contracts after the end of their first year, they would lose their visas and be deported, according to the suit. In reality, the Bilingual Teacher Exchange had no authority to terminate a teacher's visa.

"[Lopez] was making money over hand over fist, and he was using his apparent authority and power ... to put fear in their hearts," said D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine, in an interview. 

Racine said he was alerted to the issue by the Washington Teachers Union. His office has interviewed with about 15 foreign-exchange teachers so far, and Racine said he hopes that eventually all 45 teachers currently working in the city will file a complaint. 

During the interviews, "there were tears," Racine said. "Many of the teachers are permitted under the J-1 visa to bring their family over while they're here, so many of them had a spouse, as well as kids in D.C. schools, and the last thing they want is to be deported. They were afraid." 

The J-1 visa program is meant to be a cultural exchange—the department says the program's goals are for foreign teachers to share their culture with Americans, strengthen their English, and learn new skills. 

But in reality, school districts often use the program as a solution to a teacher shortage. In 2017, Education Week reported about the school districts that hire teachers from the Philippines to fill openings, particularly in shortage areas like special education.

This school year, the District of Columbia reported difficulty finding teachers for world languages and English-as-a-second language classes. Racine said the school district doesn't have the supply of bilingual teachers that it needs, so it recruits from Colombia, Spain, and other countries. 

Lora Bartlett, an associate professor in the education department at the University of California Santa Cruz who has written a book about migrant teachers, said relying on international teachers to fill labor shortages opens the door to exploitation. 

"[These teachers are] in a very vulnerable position," she said. "They see the organizations as their conduit to employment in the United States, ... and they tend to believe what they're told. There are very few resources for them confirm their legitimacy." 

Image via Getty

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