From: Cayata Dixon

Answer to teacher shortage may be near 

By Oscar Avila
Tribune staff reporter

September 16, 2001

Neighborhood activists think they have found an answer to a chronic teacher shortage 
for the Chicago Public Schools system: hundreds of illegal immigrants who taught in 
their homelands, but ended up mopping floors and washing dishes here.

When organizers presented the idea to immigrants last week, the response was 
overwhelming. More than 350 hopefuls, armed with yellowing transcripts and diplomas in 
Spanish and Polish, packed a community meeting to hear about a proposal that might 
allow them to return to their original profession.

On Tuesday, the activists will make their case to schools chief Arne Duncan, hoping to 
persuade him to sponsor some of these immigrants for work visas.

Even if Duncan is interested, the plan still needs help in Washington, where 
legislation is pending that would allow illegal immigrants already in this country to 
become eligible for specialized work visas.

Although several major hurdles remain, local immigrants have seized on the idea as 
their best -- and perhaps only -- chance to leave the underground workforce and rejoin 
the professional ranks.

Luz Manzano believes her teaching degree and 23 years of experience in Bolivia would 
make her an ideal hire. But without legal status, she and her husband are forced to 
bus tables instead.

"They need teachers," Manzano said. "Well, here we are."

In recent years, school districts have scoured the world in search of teachers. 
Chicago schools have hired scores of foreign teachers since last year through a 
program called Global Educators Outreach.

But districts face challenges because many candidates from overseas are competing with 
high-tech firms for coveted H-1B visas, reserved for immigrants who will be employed 
temporarily in a specialty occupation, such as architecture, engineering and 
mathematics. Often, the teachers lose out.

Just this month, several suburban districts reported that some bilingual teachers 
recruited in Mexico have not arrived because of visa problems. Substitutes and 
retirees have been forced to fill in, including some who don't speak Spanish.

Many local immigrants who have extensive teaching experience say they should be hired 
because they already are living in Chicago. Many have children in the city's public 

"These teachers come over, but who knows if they will stay? We are here, we have 
roots, we have children. We want to help our community," said Victor Reyes, who 
migrated 12 years ago from Mexico.

For now, district officials say their lawyers are researching the proposal.

"We're still studying the idea, the implications and whether it is even feasible. It 
is too early to say one way or the other," said Sue Gamm, the district's chief 
specialized services officer.

Organizers also need Congress to pass an extension to a measure known as 245(i), which 
allows relatives and employers to sponsor immigrants for legal status. The provision 
allows illegal immigrants to remain in the U.S. while awaiting approval of their visas 
without being forced to return home, which normally would bar them from re-entering 
for up to 10 years.

A modified version now under consideration in Congress, however, would only allow the 
Department of Labor to consider applications filed by employers before Aug. 15. That 
would exclude all of the immigrants at last week's meeting.

Immigrant advocates want changes that would give employers more time to file.

"This 245(i) is a strangely constructed bill. It has to be changed for us to have this 
chance," Grazyna Zajaczkowska, director of immigrant services for the Polish American 
Association, told participants last week.

Although 245(i) differs from a proposal to legalize millions of undocumented Mexican 
immigrants, the provision also has generated controversy.

Opponents, including several groups that want to limit immigration, say it is a reward 
for immigrants who have broken the law. They say the provision is especially troubling 
if offered to immigrant teachers.

"What kind of message are we sending to our young children, who are supposed to be 
taught every day that we are a nation of laws?" said Dave Gorak, executive director of 
the Midwest Coalition to Reform Immigration, based in Villa Park.

The Northwest Neighborhood Federation, which represents Avondale, Irving Park and 
several other areas, said momentum is building for its plan.

Last week's meeting, translated into Spanish and Polish, drew twice as many potential 
candidates as expected, with the crowd spilling over from one large meeting room into 
the next. Several attendees lingered for up to an hour after the formal presentation 
to question the organizers.

Most of the participants apparently entered the country legally with student or 
tourist visas that have expired. Although they have no legal right to work here, they 
expressed anger and sadness that their talents were being wasted.

Eric Briones, an engineer from Mexico, delivers pizza. Aleksandra Sachajko of Poland 
has two master's degrees but works as a nanny in the suburbs. And although Nalini Shah 
of India boasts a doctorate, she doesn't work at all.

Juana Ramos, a volunteer with the Northwest Neighborhood Federation, said proponents 
must convince school officials that these teachers are worth the effort. In addition 
to the paperwork, there is often a delay before immigrants can take a classroom. 
Applicants for 245(i) must wait for work visas, a process that can drag out for months 
or even years.

For that reason, hardly any public school districts sponsored applicants during the 
last extension, according to Jose Pertierra, a committee member of the American 
Immigration Lawyer Association who tracks the 245(i) issue.

Organizers have enlisted Northeastern Illinois University to help prospective teachers 
get their credentials evaluated and prepare for certification exams. The average 
experience of those attending the meeting was 14.8 years, according to forms they 
filled out that evening.

"We don't want there to be any doubts about the qualifications of these teachers," 
Ramos said. "I think when [the school system] finds out more, they will realize that 
these people could be a valuable resource."

Copyright (c) 2001, Chicago Tribune

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