Filipino teachers, hired to fill historic shortages in the South and elsewhere, fight their exploitation by opportunistic recruiters
ne Sunday morning in November 2019, a group of about sixty teachers originally from the Philippines gathered in the media center of Grant Middle School in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Mairi Nunag-Tanedo, a petite forty-four-year-old woman in heavily ripped jeans and slip-on Vans, stood in front of an I AM THANKFUL FOR display made out of construction paper and asked everyone to rise for the Philippine and United States national anthems. People paused where they were—close to Mairi at the three tables arranged in a U, in the rows of chairs behind them, next to the registration table, in the hallway on their way in. The exuberant sounds of friends and acquaintances greeting one another shifted to a more contained, reverent joy as everyone started to sing. Afterward, Mairi explained why they had come together: to talk about the exploitation and deceit they’d suffered at the hands of recruiters who had brought them to teach in American classrooms. “You might feel alone because they threaten you, but there’s power in numbers,” she said.
These teachers, with years of experience and advanced degrees, came to New Mexico because they were told they could earn as much as twelve times their salary back home. Leaving children, spouses, and communities behind, they paid recruiters thousands of dollars for placement in American schools. New Mexico had begun the 2019–20 school year with almost six hundred and fifty teacher vacancies. In response, districts in the state hired hundreds of overseas teachers, a trend that in recent years has been growing. And New Mexico is not alone. The United States is in the middle of a crisis in teacher staffing. During the 2017–18 school year, the United States had a shortage of 110,000 teachers; millions of students did not have permanent teachers. They had substitutes, often doing what subs do—showing movies, playing hangman, handing out worksheets. Over the last two decades, school districts have increasingly turned to foreign teachers to fill these shortages. Many come from the Philippines.
The desperation of American schools has created a space for predatory recruiters to take advantage of desperate teachers, to whom they promote the American dream using patriotic-sounding company names like Teach USA and Teach Quest USA. Many recruits have ended up feeling misled and exploited, and so sixty teachers crowded into a media center in an underfunded public school in northeast Albuquerque, looking to Mairi, seasoned through years of fighting her own exploitation and coercion as a foreign teacher in Louisiana, for guidance. She stood at the front of the room—cinderblock walls, no windows to the outside world, a handful of old Dell desktops—and introduced two men from the Philippine Consulate in Houston. They explained that they were there for the teachers, 24/7, as representatives of the Philippine government. But when one teacher asked, “If I file a complaint, how safe will my status be?” they conceded that they could do little to protect the status of her visa. “The program is a product of the American government, and knowing the rules is the responsibility of the applicant.”
Eight of these teachers had been recruited by Teach Quest USA, a company formed only in 2018. In its first year, the company brought forty teachers to the United States. I became curious about this process after I learned that five Filipino teachers were working at a middle school near where I lived in Albuquerque. I thought, Five? In a single year at a single school? I started meeting these teachers in January 2019, and soon I discovered that New Mexico had hired two hundred and seventy overseas teachers throughout 2018.
As early as the 1980s, education experts published reports of an impending teacher shortage, attributing the problem to an aging workforce coupled with growing enrollment. However, in his 2001 publication “Teacher Turnover and Teacher Shortages: An Organizational Analysis,” University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education professor Richard Ingersoll argued that the problem wasn’t so much a shortage as an “excess demand” due to low pay and poor work conditions. In other words, Americans consistently leave teaching jobs or refuse to take them in the first place. So school districts have increasingly turned to a stop-gap solution: importing short-term teachers from abroad.
Demand for hiring overseas teachers came in 2002 with the passage of George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act, explains Lora Bartlett in her book, Migrant Teachers: How American Schools Import Labor. (Bartlett, an associate professor of education at the University of California Santa Cruz, has written the only in-depth study I could find on the issue of foreign teachers.) The law requires that core subjects be taught by “highly qualified” teachers, making the requirements to become a teacher more arduous but without improving the job through increased salary, respect, or prestige. Related reforms—a move to tie standardized test scores to teacher salary, plus cuts to planning time and funding—increased turnover in the profession. Today, teachers make on average twenty percent less than other college graduates, even after adjusting for their shorter working year; by mid-career, that number rises to thirty percent. Many people cannot afford to pursue a teaching career. Of those who do, almost half leave the profession within five years. As a result, schools can’t find enough teachers even when offering incentive programs with loan forgiveness and scholarships. This problem is especially acute in states with low median household incomes, including New Mexico and Southern states. The rate of teacher turnover in the South is sixteen percent, three percent higher than in the Northeast, Midwest, and West census regions.
School districts have responded with a variety of creative staffing methods, in addition to recruiting overseas teachers. Teach for America places promising young teachers in low-income communities for two years, Troops to Teachers helps military veterans transition to teaching careers, and every state in the country has its own alternative pathway to licensure. I first started teaching in Broward County, Florida, in 2010 on an alternative license. I had a degree in English and poetry, a lot of student loans, and no idea how to make money. My sister, one of the many educators in my family, suggested I apply for teaching jobs. After relearning fractions and exponents, I took a subject test and received a temporary middle school mathematics certificate, which provided three years to complete the requirements necessary for a real certificate. I was offered a job teaching math on my second interview. But I left after two years without earning the permanent certificate.
In the first part of the 2000s, the early days of No Child Left Behind, foreign teachers primarily came to the U.S. on labor shortage H-1B visas, the same visa that tech companies use to fill highly skilled positions. In this arrangement, employers must pay the visa fees. They can also extend this three-year visa for another three years and sponsor workers for permanent residence once the visa expires. Since around 2010, by contrast, most teachers have come to the United States on what are known as J-1 visas. J-1 visas are meant to encourage cultural exchange, and visa holders usually have to pay their own fees. As opposed to the H-1B, the J-1 visa appeals to schools precisely because they don’t require additional funding. The J-1 visa permits workers to stay for three years, with a possible two-year extension. As cultural exchange, the visa is temporary in nature and does not offer a clear pathway to citizenship. And because the J-1 wasn’t designed to address labor shortages, it’s issued by the State Department, which has little ability to regulate abuses in the migrant teacher system.
No one in government wanted to talk to me about J-1 visas filling labor shortages. The Department of Labor refused to comment. A State Department official wrote by email that the visa program is a “mutually rewarding international exchange. The international educators experience everyday life in an American school, and host communities receive a well-qualified teacher who brings information and expertise from his or her home country.” Congress wasn’t any better—the House Committee on Education and Labor, which definitely sounds like a committee that should have an opinion on the matter, passed me off to the Judiciary Committee since “our Committee does not have jurisdiction over immigration.”
And yet, Angela Librado-Trinidad, who works for the Philippine Overseas Labor Office in D.C., told me that they have formed a “task force” with officials from the American government, including the Department of Labor, to discuss the J-1 program. Like the U.S. Department of Labor, her office shouldn’t have anything to do with the J-1 visa since, she said, it’s “technically not a labor program.” But complaints from J-1 teachers about their jobs and the problematic practices of recruiters have forced them to step in. These task force meetings were designed to talk about ways to get back to the “previously agreed upon spirit of the program,” Librado-Trinidad continued. “It’s not meant to be a venue where agencies can milk our teachers dry; it’s meant to be cultural exchange.”
Before Mairi Nunag-Tanedo was fighting for vulnerable Filipino teachers in the United States, she was one of them. And before that, she was a newly divorced mother of two surviving on a low teacher’s salary in the Philippines. When she heard that teachers could make twelve times as much in the United States and administrators from Louisiana were coming to Cebu City, she went to meet them at the Waterfront Hotel and Casino. It was March 2008, and she was one of more than nine hundred teachers who paid a $25 entrance fee for an interview. Afterward, two representatives from a California-based recruitment company called Universal Placement International Inc. explained what she would need to do to get the job: pay $595 for credential evaluation, $3,920 for visa processing, and a $1,000 agency fee. If Mairi did not pay the $1,000 agency fee within three days, they said, her job would go to someone else.
Two months later, after borrowing $5,515 from family, Mairi traveled to the recruitment company’s office in Manila to prep for her visa interview at the U.S. Embassy. This office was called PARS International Placement Agency. Mairi was led to believe that it was separate from Universal Placement International, though she would later learn that both were run by the brother-sister team of Emilio Villarba and Lourdes “Lulu” Navarro. During her meeting in Manila, Villarba said Mairi should conceal how much she was paying him from U.S. officials. He also said she needed to have the embassy mail her visa to his office instead of to her home address. This didn’t sound quite right, so Mairi checked to make sure that the company had registered with the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration, just like the Houston Philippine Consulate representatives would advise the J-1 teachers in Albuquerque to do eleven years later. It had. “Even if you check, and do everything in your power, you still have the chance to be lured,” Mairi explained in 2019.
Mairi passed her interview and returned to the recruitment company to plan her travel to the United States. But at that meeting Villarba revealed that she owed an additional $9,800, what he called a placement fee, and $1,200 for airfare. She was not allowed to book her own flight, even though she could have found a cheaper ticket and had miles available. Mairi protested—she’d already paid the required fees. Villarba said that these fees were different. If she didn’t want to pay, that was fine, but they couldn’t refund the money she’d already spent or give her the visa she’d come for.
Mairi left the office shocked and confused. She’d resigned from her job in Cebu City and paid the company $5,515. If she backed out now, she’d have nothing. She didn’t feel like she could ask her family for more money, so she borrowed from a high-interest local lender. Only once she paid in cash did Villarba hand over the visa and give her a contract.
Mairi landed in the United States in late July 2008, leaving her children in the Philippines with family so she could get used to Louisiana and pay off her debt. Before Mairi started work, Navarro presented her with a new contract. In addition to the ten percent of her first-year salary that she’d paid while still in the Philippines, the new contract promised Universal Placement International ten percent of her second-year contract. If she refused to sign, she would go home nearly $20,000 in debt without a job. (Returning to work in the Philippines would have meant starting at the bottom tier, as though she were a brand-new teacher.)
In Baton Rouge, Navarro arranged for Mairi to live in a two-bedroom apartment with three other teachers. The apartment was infested with roaches, and the building was frequently burglarized. She paid rent directly to Navarro, who had entered into a lease on her behalf. Mairi learned later that Navarro overcharged her by at least $75 each month.
In November 2008, Mairi and a small group of other teachers began meeting to discuss their treatment. Soon after, the group drafted a call to action and published it anonymously on a blog they titled “Pinoy Teachers Hub.” Navarro assumed that Ingrid Cruz, a teacher who had become an advocate for her Filipino peers, was responsible, and Navarro sued Ingrid for libel and breach of contract. Ingrid had nothing to do with the blog, but Navarro’s suit prompted her to join the small group of teachers meeting secretly late at night. They started working with American Federation of Teachers (AFT) union in Louisiana and the Southern Poverty Law Center. With the help of these groups, they got Ingrid’s case dismissed, won against Navarro before the Louisiana Workforce Commission, and, in 2010, filed a federal class action lawsuit with Mairi as the lead plaintiff.
The class action lawsuit claimed that the extent of exploitation and abuse equaled trafficking under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act and that the school board members held partial responsibility because they not only knew about Navarro’s actions, they also cooperated with and aided her—especially associate superintendent of human resources Elizabeth Duran Swinford. The plaintiffs suspected that Swinford knew of Navarro’s prior convictions for laundering money in New Jersey and stealing from California’s state Medicaid program, and that she tipped Navarro off when teachers filed complaints. Swinford has her own history of small-scale crimes, such as stealing school lunch while principal of a Florida school in the late nineties and using a school vehicle for personal use in 2012 while superintendent in Mississippi.
As the lawsuit worked through court, Navarro never stopped intimidating teachers with threats of deportation and lawsuits. She repeatedly reminded them that without her, they wouldn’t be in the United States. Mairi and others told me that Navarro said this debt meant her name was “written on their bones.” Some teachers refused to join the lawsuit against Navarro. A group of about thirty teachers wrote a manifesto pledging allegiance to her and sent it to the school board and the judge.
In December 2012, the jury awarded $4.5 million to the class, which included Mairi and Ingrid, and nullified their contracts. The teachers, the union, and the Southern Poverty Law Center agreed this was a win. Although the teachers never saw more than $2,100 each, the jury had sided with them, and the teachers felt they’d exposed an injustice. Plus, they believed this fight would help other migrant teachers vulnerable to exploitative recruiting practices, and their victory extended to all of Navarro’s teachers, even the loyalists.
The lawsuit had another consequence. In 2000, Bill Clinton had signed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which entitles victims of trafficking to special visas. It also gives more clarity and power to federal prosecutors attempting to bring traffickers to justice, while intensifying penalties for trafficking crimes. Navarro wasn’t convicted on trafficking charges, but the Louisiana teachers could still pursue trafficking visas. Of the more than three hundred and fifty teachers Navarro brought to the United States, about three hundred received trafficking visas using the class action decision and the Louisiana Workforce Commission ruling as evidence. (Many of the Louisiana teachers I talked to were frustrated and dismayed when they started hearing rumors that Swinford and Navarro were working together again at a recruitment company in New York. In resumes and on LinkedIn, Swinford calls herself CEO of PD Remix, “an education recruiting company,” which has almost no internet presence, not an easy feat in today’s world.)
For the first time since they’d arrived in the United States, the teachers had control over their lives. The freedom from Navarro meant no one could decide where they lived and whom they socialized with. The trafficking visa eventually meant freedom from the H-1B visa constraints. But because the case didn’t go to trial until two years after it was filed in 2010, many Louisiana teachers moved to school districts that were so desperate for teachers that they promised to sponsor their transition from the H-1B visa to green card. This is how Mairi and about ten of her colleagues ended up in New Mexico.
Most people think of human trafficking as involving sex work, but trafficking occurs across a variety of industries, and migrants are as often coerced by threats of lawsuits and debt bondage as they are by physical violence. In 2013, one Filipino nurse signed a three-year contract agreeing to pay more than $33,000 to a healthcare staffing agency in Broward County, Florida. When she arrived, there was no job. The nurse found work on her own and informed the company that she would no longer need their services. In response, the agency sued her for $150,000. Adam Pulver, an attorney who represented the nurse, said that these arrangements are endemic in the United States. Many foreign workers don’t understand the U.S. legal system and don’t know how to find an attorney or even appear in court, and as a result, they frequently have their wages garnished.
Mairi’s class action lawsuit in Louisiana marked the first time that the Trafficking Victims Protection Act was applied to white-collar workers. The lawyers argued that by revealing additional fees after the teachers were already financially committed and by seizing and controlling their visas and other documents, the recruitment company’s actions constituted trafficking under the act. The jury ultimately disagreed with this argument, finding that Mairi and the other plaintiffs hadn’t proved that Universal Placement International was liable under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. (The settlement awarded money, instead, based on violations of California labor laws.) But in allowing the trafficking argument to unfold in front of the jury, the case established a precedent that has since become a blueprint for white-collar labor trafficking cases.
Recently, this framework was used in Garland, Texas, a suburb of Dallas. Between 2007 and 2012, the Garland Independent School District recruited hundreds of foreign teachers. Dozens of those teachers learned upon arrival in Texas that they didn’t in fact have jobs, but they would still owe fees to their recruiters. The district’s human resources director, Victor Leos, was eventually sentenced to twenty-four months in prison for falsifying immigration documents. (Leos also admitted to getting kickbacks from recruiters.) School district officials could have helped some of these teachers apply for trafficking visas by issuing a statement denouncing Leos’s crimes, but never did. (The district denied my interview requests.) As a result, the first Garland teacher to apply for a trafficking visa did not receive one until October 2019. She told me how stressful and draining it was to be in a state of limbo without any support from Garland officials. When she did get her trafficking visa, she briefly moved to California. Staying in Texas was “too traumatic,” she said.
After Mairi’s opening remarks at the J-1 meeting in Albuquerque in 2019, she handed out homemade pins matching the Philippine flag’s colors: yellow, red, blue, white. Greg Maxie, southeast director of the National Education Association–New Mexico (a teachers’ union), stood to the side and whispered to me, “There’s a wolf in the room.” I assumed he meant the cowboy in a hat, boots, and belt buckle, but he redirected me to a distinguished man wearing glasses and with a head full of gray hair.
The man was David Bowman, an executive at a New Mexico recruitment company called Total Teaching Solutions International (TTSI). Both Maxie and TTSI teachers have reported that the company charges $15,000, significantly more than other recruiters. (Bowman said that this number is inaccurate, but he refused to say how much TTSI charges teachers.) In October 2019, TTSI sued eight teachers who stopped paying their monthly installments because the fee was so high. In response, Mairi, Maxie, and the NEA helped the teachers file countersuits using the trafficking framework. TTSI is partly owned by a woman named Janice Bickert, whose husband is the superintendent of Ruidoso Municipal Schools in southern New Mexico. In 2019, in a preliminary effort to regulate recruiters, New Mexico began requiring companies like TTSI to disclose potential conflicts of interest with any of the state’s public schools. The state defined immediate family members as likely conflicts. Soon after, TTSI became one of only three recruitment companies in New Mexico to be denied what is called a letter of no objection, a document awarded to recruiters in good standing with the state. (I called Bickert last fall, and she hung up after I identified myself as a reporter working on a story about recruitment.)
After Maxie and I spoke, Mairi told me that she believed Bowman was at the meeting as a spy, to see what the teachers he’d brought to New Mexico shared with her and the other advocates. “I can get him out,” she said, then walked over and asked him to leave.
Bowman told Mairi that he was there to support his wife, a Filipino teacher who came to the United States on a J-1 visa.
When she returned, she told me, “His wife doesn’t need to worry about her J-1 visa because she’s married to an American.”
The meeting moved on, and the teachers broke into small groups to discuss the problems they’d encountered with recruiters before leaving the Philippines and after they’d arrived in America. A facilitator tried to put Bowman and his wife in separate groups, but he declined and sat back to watch. A table of teachers from TTSI refused to share their stories with the larger group when the time came. A teacher from another table said, “We wish we had a venue to express our rights without retaliation.”
On the way out for lunch, Bowman stopped by the table of teachers he knew. “Anything you have to say will have no consequence, so don’t be shy,” he said, smiling. They smiled back. Maxie, who’d watched the exchange, seemed outraged by Bowman’s presence.
When Mairi moved to New Mexico in 2013, she taught without organizing and spent time with her kids, who had come to join her after she’d been in the U.S. for two years. But in 2016, new Filipino teachers on temporary J-1 visas started popping up in schools across New Mexico. She met with several and they told her about their difficult relationships with recruiters. She decided to begin advocating for them, too, and asked other veterans of the Louisiana suit living in New Mexico for help. One was Ian Cainglet, a teacher from Bohol who had been deeply involved in Louisiana. Despite his gray hair, which he wears slicked back, he has a boyish charm. He speaks deliberately but is also lighthearted, always making jokes and breaking into a big grin. He immediately stepped up to join the cause in New Mexico, both because he credits Mairi with changing the course of his life and because, as he said, “it’s my job to make myself available.” He and Mairi had fought in Louisiana to end the exploitation of foreign teachers, but now it was happening again. We are witnessing “a repeat of history,” Ian said.
The situation in New Mexico was in some ways even more complicated. Mairi and Ian told me that a friend had opened a recruiting company in Albuquerque. The friend also fought against Navarro, but Ian worried that she was now exploiting teachers herself, except with the benefit of having learned from Navarro’s mistakes—Filipinos know how to best manipulate Filipinos, Ian said. He explained that many teachers may feel indebted to a recruiter who offers them even something simple like a meal or a rice cooker or a ride to the grocery store. It’s an internal or spiritual debt called utang na loob, and, Ian said, it’s the reason some teachers don’t fight back. Valerie Francisco-Menchavez, author of The Labor of Care: Filipina Migrants and Transnational Families in the Digital Age and associate professor of Sociology and Sexuality at San Francisco State University, told me that utang na loob is “the best part of Filipino culture, but it also shackles.”
In the year that I spent getting to know Filipino teachers, I saw this dynamic play out over and over. Teachers invited recruiters to their birthday parties and celebrations. The recruiters are part of the community. But their presence in this community also allows them to surveil it, Francisco-Menchavez explained. Ian told me that breaking free of these relationships was a necessary step in advocating for exploited migrant teachers.
As Francisco-Menchavez sees it, the way forward is through advocacy: for teachers to shrug off the part of utang na loob that insists on allegiance to recruiters, and embrace the part that compels them to fight for those in need, like their colleagues on J-1 visas. Ian had to teach himself how to think more critically about who benefits from having Filipino teachers in American schools. Through advocacy, and their involvement in the TTSI countersuits, Mairi and Ian have carried what they started in the South to New Mexico. In December 2019, Ian started a new teaching job in California. “Hopefully [exploitation is] not happening there, but if it is, I’ll fight,” he told me before he moved.
After Spain ceded the Philippines to the United States in 1898, a century of cultural imposition followed, including the development of an American-model public education system in the country. This historic westernization continues today both in terms of teacher training and the broader culture.
Ian told me that the “idea of America” is so appealing that even if teachers were offered visas “for a month only, nine out of ten Filipinos would take it.” But once they get here, they still experience culture shock, especially in the classroom. Behavior issues abound in the hard-to-staff schools most Filipinos teach in. In the Philippines, students stand up when a teacher enters the room, and the profession is so respected that teachers can’t gather after work for drinks for fear of setting the wrong example, Mairi told me.
In a problematic way, the current system of recruiting overseas teachers works for both the United States and the Philippines, where the economy depends to an extraordinary degree on remittances from foreign workers, which amounted to thirty-two billion U.S. dollars in 2018, or eight percent of the gross national income. Lora Bartlett, the education professor at UC Santa Cruz who studies migrant teachers, said that the exploitation of overseas teachers falls through the cracks of oversight. The J-1 visa is not regulated by the U.S. Department of Labor and while the rules around the H-1B visa require comprehensive statistics to be shared annually, the same is not true for J-1—and shrouding facts and numbers in secrecy means that the program cannot be viewed accurately. Additionally, Bartlett said, advocates have a tendency to overlook teachers as victims since they are making well above minimum wage.
Bartlett thinks the U.S. needs a specific teacher visa that offers a pathway to citizenship. Even the H-1B visa isn’t ideal for teachers—H-1B recipients cannot start work until October and the school year usually begins in August. “We need to shift the orientation of teacher migration from one of transience to one of transplant,” she argued. Permanence would be better for teachers and for students. “What’s best for American children,” Bartlett told me, “is to have teachers that stay regardless of where they come from.” But Greg Maxie, the union representative, worries about the polarizing debate over immigration in America’s current climate. “We’ve done some of our own polling,” he said. “When you talk about a path to citizenship, people shut down and rebel . . . but they are glad their children have a qualified teacher instead of another long-term sub.” Both the national and the New Mexico Parent Teacher Association told me that they didn’t have an opinion on the matter of foreign teachers.
Importing teachers and treating them as temporary migrant laborers also perpetuates the idea that teachers are low-status workers and deprofessionalizes teaching as a whole. Administrators at New Urban High School in Oregon told Bartlett that they were happy with Filipino teachers because they were “compliant, complacent, and afraid to complain.” They wouldn’t insist on the need for a planning period or object to additional work. They come on temporary visas by necessity and have been led to believe that if only they work hard enough, their J-1 might be converted to an H-1B, eventually leading to citizenship. This does happen, but rarely. Their position is fragile.
Ingersoll, the Penn education professor whose research influenced Clinton, Bush, and Obama, said that starting in the 1950s with Eisenhower, “most, if not all, presidents have given speeches about the teacher shortage,” but they only want to talk about recruitment. It’s easier to say we don’t have enough teachers, Ingersoll explained, than to say, “Look, this isn’t a very good job.” Policy that focuses only on recruitment and not retention is like trying to fill “a bucket with holes in the bottom.”
Some states have found a less exploitative way to work within the constraints of the J-1 system. In these states, education departments deal directly with foreign government officials to bring teachers to American classrooms on J-1 visas. This set-up bypasses recruiters and allows teachers, at the conclusion of their visa, to return to their job. New Mexico and other states have such relationships with Spain, but some states, including South Carolina, have expanded this relationship to other countries, though not yet the Philippines. Mairi asked officials in New Mexico’s Department of Education if they would create actual cultural exchange through a government-to-government program with the Philippines. They said no.
Gwen Perea Warniment, a deputy secretary for New Mexico’s public education department, told me that establishing a direct J-1 relationship with the Philippines would require a special coordinator and a strong relationship with the country’s embassy. She said, “At their heart, international exchange programs are really positive, but structures need to be in place to make sure that teachers feel safe.” Warniment also said that New Mexico’s teacher vacancies fell by thirteen percent in the 2018–19 school year. The state’s teacher vacancies have declined at the same time that the state has aggressively recruited foreign teachers, although the state has also raised pay for teachers and it’s unclear which change has had a bigger effect on teacher retention.
Advocates in other states have pushed for laws to regulate recruiters, but with mixed results. In 2014, the California State Legislature passed a law targeting recruiters, but only for the H-2B labor visa meant for temporary nonagricultural work, such as in the hospitality industry. Early drafts of the bill covered all foreign workers, Rachel Micah-Jones of Centro de los Derechos del Migrante told me. But when the J-1 lobby—composed of au pair agencies and hotels, motels, and resorts—asked to carve these entities out of the bill since they involved cultural exchange and not labor, lawmakers caved to its demands in order to get some version of the bill passed. In 2018, when the J-1 lobby pushed back on an all-encompassing bill in Maryland, organizers, including Micah-Jones, let the bill die in committee. The organizers decided it would be better to educate people on the way J-1 is often used as a labor shortage visa and try again rather than getting protections for some, but not all workers, immediately.
Aurora Curts is the kind of dedicated teacher American students get and then lose with the J-1 visa. In 2018, after fifteen years working as a special education teacher in Cebu, Aurora began exploring jobs in the United States. She had longed for adventure since visiting Florida in the early 2000s, and she told a college friend who was teaching abroad in Baltimore that she was eager to get to the U.S. The friend told her that American schools were in dire need of special education teachers. It would be easy to get a job, and she recommended two recruitment companies.
Aurora received offers from schools in Las Vegas, Nevada, and Ramah, New Mexico, population three hundred sixty, which she chose for a change of pace over urban Cebu City. The offer from Ramah was brokered by Teach Quest USA, which charged ten percent of Aurora’s first-year salary. Many of Teach Quest USA’s recruits went to Albuquerque Public Schools and lived at the Mesa Ridge Apartments complex on the outskirts of sprawling Albuquerque. Aurora and a few others went to rural communities where schools offered incentives like rent-free housing and a $2,000 annual “loneliness stipend” meant to make living in a remote area easier.
In Ramah, the school district provided Aurora with a three-bedroom trailer that sat so close to the elementary school she nearly had a playground as her front yard. (The combined middle/high school where Aurora taught was about a mile away.) The school gave her an old science table and two recliners, which she covered with sheets. Her bed was a twin mattress unsupported by a frame. For fun, she went for walks, watched television, and cooked. She didn’t have a car and the nearest town, Zuni Pueblo, was about twenty miles away—and, in any case, it was also small.
Aurora is thin, with big eyes, long brown hair, and an inviting smile. I first met her in February 2019, soon after I began reporting on foreign teachers, when I drove two hours from Albuquerque to attend her fortieth birthday party in her trailer. Ramah sits in the high desert surrounded by the Pueblo of Zuni, the Navajo Nation, and Cibola National Forest.
Aurora had decorated her trailer with laminated photographs of memories from the Philippines: Aurora in a bikini on a boat, Aurora surrounded by friends at a party, Aurora in shorts sitting next to a water fountain, Aurora standing in a living room in a tight dress, hand on hip. For the party, she hung balloons and streamers around the photographs. Her American coworkers sat in the living room near the television, while a group of Filipino teachers from Albuquerque stood in the kitchen next to the plentiful buffet. Aurora, smiling, moved back and forth between the two groups, insisting that people eat.
The Filipino teacher community in New Mexico is small, and while Aurora didn’t know Mairi, she was friendly with many of the teachers who would later attend the J-1 forum in Albuquerque. Unlike many Filipino teachers, Aurora’s decision to come to the United States was motivated by a search for adventure as much as financial necessity, and she didn’t feel called to advocate like Mairi or Ian.
Aurora, the youngest of ten children, was raised in Cebu City by her grandmother. “My mother said she’s very happy that my grandmother raised me,” Aurora told me, as explanation for this arrangement. “I had a better life with her.” When her grandmother died, Aurora was left penniless at eighteen. Determined to be the first in her family to earn a degree, she sold chocolate and ice cream at a big shopping mall called SM City Cebu for three years, eventually earning a master’s degree in special education at Cebu Normal University. Not long after finishing her undergraduate degree, Aurora met and married an American man twenty-one years her senior. (They separated in 2010, and their divorce was finalized in July of this year.)
A few weeks after her party, Aurora made an unlikely friend. While slogging through snow on her way to school one morning, an old woman almost hit Aurora with her car. She stopped, introduced herself as Trudy, and offered Aurora a ride. Aurora accepted, and Trudy returned to drive Aurora to school over the next several days. At the end of the week, Aurora tried to give Trudy money, and when Trudy refused, Aurora started cooking her Filipino food as thanks—pork and chicken adobo, rice noodles, spring rolls, beef curry, buttered garlic shrimp. Trudy invited her to family gatherings and gave her life advice. Aurora told Ms. Trudy, as she called her, that she didn’t understand why some of the teachers were nasty to her when she tried to be so nice. Trudy told her that sometimes it was better to ignore people. Aurora talked about transferring to Albuquerque so she could socialize more, or buying a car so she had more freedom, but she didn’t know how to drive. Trudy said that Albuquerque kids were worse and she should stay in Ramah, but that she should definitely learn to drive.
I visited with Aurora on and off over the next year, in Ramah and when she came to Albuquerque. She never stopped talking about how happy she was to be in America, but she seemed lonely in Ramah and it didn’t help that many of her colleagues were unfriendly. Some were downright mean, including one of her co-teachers. “I have to change my mood, Ms. Rachel,” she told me that spring. “I don’t want to be sad here.”
In the Philippines, Aurora had gone to a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with her grandmother for five years. When her grandmother died, Aurora left the church. Ramah was founded, in 1876, by Mormon missionaries who hoped to convert the nearby Navajo and Zuni indigenous populations, and the community remains primarily Mormon. Members of the church encouraged Aurora to join, but she didn’t want to. She liked to wear shorts and skirts well above the knee, and she didn’t like the way women had to wear skirts down to their ankles. A coworker even warned her about walking around Ramah showing too much skin.
One weekend in June, Aurora came to Albuquerque and we drank hot chocolate and talked in the hotel room she rented, paid for out of her loneliness stipend. She told me I was welcome to stay over and sleep in the second queen bed. I declined; I lived fifteen minutes away. She invited me to stay in her spare bedroom in Ramah numerous times after that, and our relationship blurred the line between friendship and source. She often talked to me about experimenting with dating apps and wanting to live in a city, which she called “civilization.”
In December 2019, ten months after her birthday party, I drove out to Ramah to spend the night in Aurora’s trailer. The morning after I arrived, Aurora awoke at 5:30 to take a shower. At six, I found her making breakfast in a fuzzy bathrobe and slippers, with her long hair twisted in a towel on top of her head. An alarm on her phone sounded every fifteen minutes to keep her on schedule. We ate rice and scrambled eggs with tomatoes at 6:30. Packed lunch and cleaned up at 6:45. At seven, she turned on her car. Several months earlier, she’d bought a used Subaru Forester and was slowly gaining confidence as a driver. (“The pavement is all the same,” Trudy had reassured her.) While the windshield defrosted, she went back inside to dress. She left promptly at 7:15, wearing black dress pants, a black-and-white polka dot shirt under a black blazer, and a little lipstick. On our way out, Aurora pointed to a laminated certificate that read “Fashionista Teacha” taped to the wall. “I don’t know why they voted me that,” she said, rolling her eyes and grinning, clearly pleased.
In June 2020, Aurora accepted an offer from a high school in Albuquerque. She felt bad about leaving her students, but living in Ramah was difficult and she wanted to experience all New Mexico had to offer. With two other Teach Quest USA teachers, she signed a lease on a three-bedroom apartment eight minutes from her new school. (Aurora has one room, and each of the other teachers shares a room with her husband and teenage son.) Moving to Albuquerque meant taking a pay cut, but “money isn’t everything,” she said. In civilization, she saw more of the world. She and her roommates hiked in the Sandia Mountains, shopped at the outlet mall in Santa Fe, and dressed however they wanted.
Interactive maps from the National Center for Education Statistics show each state’s performance in math, reading, science, and writing in three color-coded levels. Dark blue means that a state “performed significantly higher than [the] National public,” mid-blue means “performed not significantly different,” and light blue means “performed significantly lower.” New Mexico is light blue for every subject in middle school. The American South is a sea of light blue punctuated by a few mid-blue and the occasional dark blue. This map data correlates with income statistics in the South, and low household incomes translate to fewer tax dollars, worse pay for teachers, and ultimately, for students who make it to college, more remediation once they get there. Students who take four or more remedial classes in college have less than a one percent chance of graduation.
Aurora’s three years are up in 2021, but teachers can usually extend their J-1 for an additional two years, which means she’ll likely return to the Philippines in 2023. Studies show that students and families do better when teachers stay in their communities long-term, and Aurora’s school will lose something—a friend, a colleague, a teacher—when she’s yanked away at the end of her visa.
One result of the coronavirus pandemic: J-1 teachers who completed their fifth year in spring 2020 have been given a bonus year in the United States. The State Department described this additional year as a way to help teachers affected by the pandemic, although the decision also helps schools who now face difficulties hiring foreign teachers because of travel restrictions. Ian Cainglet views the extension as a win, but notes that “many teachers who already paid agencies initial fees might not be able to come here in time for fall semester.”
COVID-19 is drastically changing the teaching landscape. If additional funds from the federal government are not sent to support state governments, according to one estimate, millions of teachers will lose their jobs—with more than six hundred fifty thousand in the South alone. American schools still haven’t returned to pre-2008 recession numbers of teachers and, as the Learning Policy Institute says, those cuts “disproportionately impacted districts and schools serving students of color and students from low-income families.” This current crisis will be no different.
Social distancing and stay-at-home orders have slowed the efforts to help J-1 teachers. The countersuit against TTSI stalled, and it was impossible for people to gather in media centers and living rooms because, Mairi said, “we have to focus first on things we do as teachers, as responsible people following pandemic restrictions.” But she continued to plan and strategize and meet with teachers over Zoom. “They better watch out,” Ingrid Cruz, the teacher in Baton Rouge, said of recruiters across the country. “Mairi’s not going to stop.”
This story was supported by the journalism nonprofit the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.
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