Louisiana-bound Pinoy mentors sue recruiter

By Rodney J. Jaleco, ABS-CBN North America News Bureau

Posted at Oct 12 2009 10:33 PM | Updated as of Oct 13 2009 07:28 PM

FAIRFAX, Virginia. Two Louisiana-bound school teachers are suing their recruiters in California and in the Philippines for allegedly pocketing $15,000 in “placement fees” for non-existing jobs.

Perla and Louie (not their real names) accused a certain Lulu Navarro of Universal Placement International (UPI) of Los Angeles, CA and Emilio Villarba of PARS International Placement Agency of Cubao, Quezon City of failing to deliver the jobs promised them.

Louisiana-bound Pinoy mentors sue recruiter 1But perhaps more remarkable, Perla and Louie, and two other teachers who were recruited with them for jobs in public schools in Shreveport in Louisiana state, received documents from US school authorities which allowed them to get H-1B visas.

“We had a job offer. That’s what we presented to the US Embassy,” Louie explained.

H-1B is a non-immigrant visa that allows US employers to hire temporary foreign workers in specialty occupations. For Filipinos, that usually means a teacher or nurse.

The US sets yearly quotas on the number of H-1B visas it can give out. Employers are, in effect, competing for the visas to bring needed special-skills foreign workers.

The visa, which is issued based on a “petition” of a US employer, has a validity of three years and extendable to six years.

Explained lawyer Arnedo Valera, executive director of the Fairfax-based Migrant Heritage Commission, “The H-1B is a work permit only for those who sponsored the foreign worker; it’s not a work permit allowing you to work anywhere else.”

He added the fact that neither the Philippines nor US authorities actually verify job offers from US firms is a loophole that leads to situations Perla and Louie now face.

The two revealed their ordeal started in July 2007 when a classmate taking his Master’s at the University of the Philippines was recruited for a teaching job in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Lure of Louisiana

The pair sent their resume to PARS International Placement Agency in February 2008, hoping to land jobs in Louisiana.

They said they first met Navarro at the Manila Hotel in March, after paying P1,000 for the chance to listen to a briefing and be interviewed by her.

They said they were interviewed again in June, this time by a certain Pamela Barker, who was introduced as a human resources representative of Caddo Parish School which belonged to a new school district of Shreveport.

They signed their contract the following month reportedly after paying $1,920 to process their H-1B visa and $2,000 as “attorney’s fee”.

In August 2008, they were allegedly informed by PARS International Placement Agency that the “notice of action” for their H-1B visa has come through.

They received their respective visa on September 4.

They said they kept calling the PARS agency office because the other teachers who got their visa the same day they did have already started working at Caddo Parish School.

Since they already have their visas, the teachers decided to take the “Praxis Test” in the US. The “Praxis” is a test commissioned by some states, including Louisiana, to certify and license their teachers.

They were allegedly assured by Villarba that they can start working two weeks after they take the “Praxis Test”, whether they pass it or not (they passed the test).

Perla said she paid $9,000 as “placement fee” to PARS, most of them borrowed from a finance company. Louie paid $8,000.Louisiana-bound Pinoy mentors sue recruiter 2

They and a third teacher arrived in Washington DC’s Reagan Airport on November 3; a fourth teacher arrived a few days later because she could not immediately raise enough money for her “placement fee”, the teachers claimed.

After taking the “Praxis Test” on November 15, they got in touch with Jan Holiday, human resources director of Caddo Parish School, who allegedly told them they’d have to wait for the next school season to start.

Then one of their companion teachers was taken in by Caddo Parish School in January 2009, which only heightened their anxiety. “We have family and debts back in the Philippines,” they begged.

They remained jobless however even as the current school season opened.

Excessive fees

“Navarro said she was told by Jan Holiday they’ve stopped hiring Filipino teachers because of the trouble that happened in East Baton Rouge,” Louie explained.

The “trouble” she was referring to was the backlash of about 200 restive Filipino teachers in Caddo, Baton Rouge, Jefferson and other Louisiana school districts, protesting the excessive fees allegedly collected by Navarro.

Teachers complained they were forced to fork out from $8,000 to $10,000 each as placement fees for Navarro, when the Louisiana education department reportedly paid her $49,000 for recruiting the Filipino teachers.

“Nakita nila sa news reports nag-rally ang mga teachers so natakot na sila. So kami hindi na take-in. The school board decided to stop hiring Filipino teachers, especially siguro from the agency of Lulu Navarro,” Perla averred.

The Louisiana Federation of Teachers has sued Navarro and UPI on behalf of the Filipino teachers.

Meanwhile, Perla and Louie have assailed Navarro because they were left to fend for their own for over a year. They claimed she only started returning their calls when she heard about their impending suit.

Navarro, whom we tried to get for a separate interview but didn’t respond to messages we left through UPI’s Los Angeles office, allegedly refused to refund the $17,000 “placement fee” because they were already in the US.

“Universal Placement International did not do their best to find an employer for us,” the two mentors said in a joint statement.

Navarro reportedly scouted a job in California but the teachers would need to pay for another certification test – money they clearly did not have because they’ve been jobless since they got to America.

Visa for victims

Perla and Louie are now considered out of status for their H-1B visa, which could lead to their arrest and deportation.

Atty. Valera and the MHC team of lawyers are helping them avoid exactly that.

“There are about 10,000 U visas available every year for victims of crimes where there is need to investigate aspects of the crime here in the United States, that would qualify them for the U visa,” he explained.

“If they cooperate with an investigating agency, either the INS [Immigration and Naturalization Service] or Department of Justice, they can be given this visa even if they are deemed out of status,” Valera added.

He said they are looking into filing the more serious charge of human trafficking against both Navarro and UPI in California, and Villarba and PARS in the Philippines.

“The beauty of the U visa is that it’s not limited to the basic definition of trafficking but also includes related activities that are considered crimes, like immigration fraud,” he averred.

“Kapag may nakikita kaming pulis kinakabahan kami, o baka hulihin na kami,” Louie said, “pero feeling ko mas maganda na rin iyon para magkaroon ng record, at least bibilis iyong investigation doon sa ginawa sa amin ng agency namin.”