DALLAS (AP) — A North Texas school district that discovered problems in its program to hire international teachers faces a federal investigation and a payout of more than $500,000 to those whose recruitment didn't follow regulations.
"Real taxpayer dollars were wasted, real people were hurt and the reputation of this district was damaged by the actions and inactions of a few," Harry Jones, an attorney with a law firm that the Garland Independent School District hired to look into its program, said at a news conference this month detailing his ongoing investigation.
Jones found the official formerly in charge of the district's program for hiring teachers on the H1-B visas — temporary visas designed to bring skilled foreign workers to the U.S. — was poorly supervised and that foreign hiring from 2008 on had "no rational basis or real need." Over about a decade, the district filed 642 H1-B visa applications, while a nearby district filed 23.
Jones said the official — the executive director of human resources at the suburban Dallas district before retiring in January — sent the hires to a law firm where a relative worked as a billing clerk, forming a dysfunctional relationship between the entities. That firm no longer does work for the district.
"The problem is that it's all very murky, the billing practices. At the very least we know that the law firm was charging too much to the teachers and we know at the very least that the teachers, some of them, were paying things they shouldn't have had to pay," Jones told The Associated Press.
Jones' firm began its investigation after the district was contacted in September by employees concerned about wrongdoing. The district self-reported the findings in February to Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Homeland Security Investigations. The case has also been turned over to local police and the Texas Rangers.
Meanwhile, some teachers whose attempts to gain permanent residency have been unsuccessful are frustrated.
"Those who made the mistakes should pay the consequences and those in the middle should have some sort of help and consideration," said Alfonso Casares Tafur, a Colombian hired by the district in 2007.
Employers can sponsor employees on the three-year H1-B visas for a period of up to six years. Before the end of the fifth year, employers can also apply for a labor certification from the Department of Labor so that the employee can seek permanent residency.
Casares Tafur, who teaches Spanish language, literature and culture, said his labor certification paperwork is being appealed after getting audited. Because of the appeal he was granted an extension that allows him to stay in the U.S. until August 2015. But, he said, "I still feel in limbo."
Francisco Marcano, an English-as-a-second language teacher from Venezuela, has also had his labor certification application audited and sent to the appeals process. He's on an extension that will expire in September.
"This has certainly broken my heart," said Marcano, who like Casares Tafur, paid about $14,000 in immigration-related fees.
Harry Joe, a Dallas immigration attorney not involved in the case, said the employer must pay fees associated with getting the H1-B visa and obtaining the labor certification while filings for permanent residency can be paid for by the employee.
District spokesman Chris Moore said some of the "inconsistencies" found in the investigation have affected some employees' immigration-related paperwork. He didn't have specific numbers.
"Those inconsistencies have presented some issues for some of these visa employees and those are the things that we as a district are working to resolve," he said, adding they are doing what they can for those facing a non-renewal, including contacting members of Congress.
"All we can do is make requests," he said, stressing the district has no control over the federal government's immigration decisions.
Joe said to get a labor certification, the employer must "prove to the U.S. government that there's not a U.S. citizen who can do the job offered," noting "most denials are the results of errors and omissions made by the employer."
Moore said 200 employees on visas are working in the district, about 5 percent of teachers. He said about a dozen teachers are facing an impending deadline. Eighty teachers have received permanent residency.
Jones said the former human resources director's recruiting included trips to the Philippines, which "doesn't make any sense," for the district with a student population that's about half Hispanic.
He said the former official's supervisor, now on administrative leave, didn't act on a January 2013 email detailing misdeeds and didn't rigorously examine the program after a 2012 Department of Labor investigation found about 150 workers in the district were due about $250,000 in back wages for wrongly being made to pay fees for the filing of their H1-B visas.