BATON ROUGE, La.
Strangely, it all started with No Child Left Behind. School systems everywhere scrambled to find certified teachers in math and science. East Baton Rouge Parish, La., was no exception. Administrators didn’t know where to turn. Then they met Lourdes Navarro, a Filipino-American whose company, Universal Placement International, advertised high-quality teachers from the Philippines.
Navarro flew school administrators to Cebu to interview prospective candidates and put them up in a five-star hotel, at a cost of nearly $20,000. She didn’t charge the school district a dime. Instead, she charged the teachers.
First, a $50 interview fee. Then, $5,000 to process their H-1B guest worker visas. After they borrowed the money — a year’s salary in the Philippines — she demanded an additional, unexpected fee: $7,500. The teachers were shocked, but they paid, lest they lose what they had already invested. This whole pattern of exploitation, spelled out in court documents, didn’t stop there. Hours after they landed in the United States, she forced them to sign a contract agreeing to hand over 10 percent of their salary during their second year on the job.
“We were thinking we had no choice,” recalled Ingrid Cruz, a graduate of a prestigious university in the Philippines who was hired to teach sixth-grade science. “She said, ‘If you don’t sign it, you are going back home.’ ”
By then, Cruz badly needed the job in America to repay the money she had borrowed for the fees.
Navarro forced the teachers to live together in an apartment complex where they paid hundreds of dollars above market rate. Instead of securing three-year work visas, she got them visas for one year, and charged a fee for renewal.
They later learned that Navarro had pleaded guilty to money laundering and served time for defrauding the California health care system. But school administrators across Louisiana let her bring more than 350 teachers to the state.
They suffered from culture shock in the classroom. Kids talked back and could not sit still — not like Filipino students.
“Every afternoon, as soon as the bell rang, I was crying,” Cruz recalled. “I didn’t expect them to be that rude.”
They also faced hostility from locals who accused them of stealing jobs.
“It was overwhelming for them,” said Donnabel Escuadra-Rayburn, who arrived in 2008. “My paraprofessional had been working 10 years. He was a good teacher, but he couldn’t pass his certification exam, so he lost his job.”
The Filipino teachers vented their frustrations on an anonymous blog. Navarro discovered it and threatened to deport them. She filed frivolous lawsuits against Cruz and Escuadra-Rayburn. And her invoices kept coming, even in the summer when the teachers’ paychecks stopped. (My efforts to contact Navarro were unsuccessful.)
The idea of charging immigrants to work is as old as America itself. Older, in fact. According to Cindy Hahamovitch, a history professor at the College of William & Mary, half of all white laborers in the American colonies were indentured servants who worked for years to pay off the cost of the journey. Today, most guest workers arrive deeply in debt because of recruiter fees. “Close to Slavery,” a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, documents Jamaicans who paid $1,500 to clean hotels, Mexicans who paid $3,000 to pick tomatoes, Indian welders who paid $14,000 to fix ships after Hurricane Katrina. (The Indians thought they were getting green card cards. Instead, they got 10-month H-2B visas.)
But this could all change with the sweeping new immigration bill being debated on Capitol Hill this week. It regulates recruiters for the first time, and makes them pay a bond to cover workers’ wages if anything goes wrong. It also prohibits charging workers most fees. Employers are the ones who should pay.
How it will affect the Filipino teacher pipeline remains unclear. It’s been a lucrative business since 2001, when a California-based agency supplied some of the first Filipino teachers to Boston Public Schools. They were considered so important that the late Senator Ted Kennedy intervened to get their visas before the school year began.
Since then, more than 60,000 H-1B visas have been approved for school teachers, according to US Citizenship and Immigration Services data. There are 600 Filipino teachers who paid up to $8,000 each in fees to work in Baltimore schools. In El Paso, two school administrators were sentenced to probation for their role in a human trafficking case in which 273 Filipinos paid $10,000 apiece for teaching jobs, but arrived to find fewer than 100 positions available.
In East Baton Rouge, at least, the story has a happy ending. With support from the American Federation of Teachers and the Southern Poverty Law Center, Cruz and her colleagues sued Navarro and won $4.5 million. Navarro claimed bankruptcy, so they don’t expect the money. But the verdict means they are free. They don’t owe her anymore.
Meanwhile, math and science scores are climbing in East Baton Rouge. Cruz started a robotics club. She and her colleagues have grown so fond of their students that it actually hurt their case. A jury found Navarro guilty of deceptive business practices, but not human trafficking. In the jury’s mind, if the teachers had been trafficked, how could they love their jobs so much?
Getting recruited by Navarro “was a mistake,” said first-grade teacher Eva Adolfo. “But it was a beautiful mistake. We had to suffer. But we became a family. ”Farah Stockman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @fstockman.