When Analyn Catli decided to come to the United States from her native Philippines, she left her two young children, traveled nearly 8,000 miles to an unfamiliar country and agreed to pay some $15,000—four times the average annual income of a Filipino family—to the job placement agency Total Teaching Solutions International. This seasoned teacher dreamed of working in New Mexico schools and, once her children joined her, giving them educational opportunities they would never have in the Philippines.
Catli is one of hundreds of Filipino teachers who are “invited” by TTSI to teach in the United States—and then abused with exorbitant fees, misinformation and, once they arrive, threats of being reported to immigration authorities and sued if they do not comply with unexpected requirements and fees. The $15,000 fee is vastly more than the $4,000 most agencies charge, and when recruits struggle to pay it off, TTSI threatens them with legal action and sues them for collection of fees.
“These teachers are really in bondage,” says Mairi Nunag-Tañedo, an AFT member who experienced a similar situation in Louisiana. “There’s no turning back. They’re being forced to do whatever the recruiters want them to do.”
AFT New Mexico and the AFT—the unions that represent these teachers—have stepped in to support them, providing legal counsel to defend against the TTSI lawsuits. In October a judge dismissed a TTSI lawsuit against Catli, saying there was “gross disparity” between TTSI fees and the services it provided. And now New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas has taken decisive action against TTSI, suing the company and CEO Janice Bickert for using deceptive tactics and predatory business practices that harm immigrants. The suit seeks not only a permanent restraining order but financial restitution to the teachers and fines of $5,000 per violation.
The violations are especially egregious during a teacher shortage in New Mexico, when students need instructors who are able to staff their schools without having to worry about exploitation and fear.
“AFT New Mexico is proud to be standing up with our members against abusive recruiting agencies like TTSI,” says AFT New Mexico President Stephanie Ly. “The way that TTSI has treated Analyn and other teachers is unacceptable, and we will continue to work in the courts and with state authorities to hold them accountable.”
Braving change, encountering exploitation
When Maricel Clemen first arrived in New Mexico, everything was unfamiliar. It was winter, and snow—something she’d never seen—had already fallen. The school where she started working had a shortage of special education instructors—her area of expertise—so she had to learn the ropes on her own. When she got her first paycheck, she was shocked by the deductions for taxes—something she had not expected and had not planned for. She had to pay for her housing, for her carpool. She couldn’t afford to go home, even though she seriously considered giving up and heading back. And when Clemon was unable to come up with her monthly payment to TTSI, her TTSI agent texted that she was going to report her to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Then TTSI sued her for failure to pay, delivering the court summons to her at school in front of her colleagues. She was mortified, though the people she worked with were supportive.
Catli also experienced shaming when TTSI publicly delivered a court order. “I was really embarrassed in front of my co-teachers,” Catli remembers. “I was crying.” TTSI also threatened her with calls to immigration officials. She was so distressed she became sick with hypertension and was hospitalized, adding medical bills to her debts.
“We were afraid,” says Clemen. Family members advised the teachers to give up and just pay the money, but they didn’t have it, and besides, it seemed wrong.
When Catli and Clemen went to their union for help, the response was a tremendous relief. “We’re really very thankful to the AFT because we didn’t know what to do,” she says.
“You have to fight for your rights,” says Catli. “AFT gave me strength for that.”
Making a difference
It’s not the first time the AFT has stepped in to protect exploited teachers from overseas. In 2010, the union joined the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Louisiana Federation of Teachers to file a class action suit on behalf of nearly 350 teachers in Louisiana. The educators had been lured to the United States by predatory labor placement agencies, only to be victimized by fraud and human trafficking. Like the New Mexico teachers, the group was charged far more than market rate for placement and then charged interest on the loans they took out to make their payments. Their visas and passports were confiscated until they could pay, and they were assigned substandard housing and threatened if they tried to move.
In that case, the Louisiana Workforce Commission eventually ordered Universal Placement International and its principal executive, Lourdes Navarro, to repay about $1.8 million in illegal fees, plus fines and attorney fees. And the federal class-action lawsuit yielded another $4.5 million verdict.
In an era of teacher shortages, when school systems turn to overseas to fill vacancies, the AFT is committed to ensuring that every worker is treated with dignity and respect, that school districts and recruiting agencies are held accountable, and that we work to end the abusive and exploitative practices that have plagued the temporary visa program for decades.
The AFT has been a leader in fighting recruiter abuse and has proposed a model code of ethical international recruitment and employment, available on the AFT’s resource page on teacher recruitment and migration. It is also pushing for broader reforms to teacher visa programs as a member of Migration That Works, a coalition of organizations that work across visa categories for a vision of labor migration that upholds strong worker protections and is fair to all workers and their families regardless of their country of origin or work classification—from farmworkers and au pairs, to graduate workers and teachers.
“Coming from a third-world country, the United States is always viewed as the greener pasture for professional and economic growth,” says Nunag-Tañedo. “That [view] is really being abused by the recruiters.”