GLENDALE, Ariz. – The latest wave of foreign workers sweeping into U.S. jobs brought Donato Soberano from the Philippines to Arizona two years ago. He had to pay thousands of dollars to a job broker and lived for a time in an apartment with five other Filipino workers. The lure is the pay — 10 times more than what he made doing the same work back home.
But Soberano is not a hospitality worker or a home health aide. He is in another line of work that increasingly pays too little to attract enough Americans: Soberano is a public school teacher.
As walkouts by teachers protesting low pay and education funding shortfalls spread across the country, the small but growing movement to recruit teachers from overseas is another sign of the difficulty some districts are having providing the basics to public school students.
Among the latest states hit by the protests is Arizona, where teacher pay is more than $10,000 below the national average of $59,000 per year. The Pendergast Elementary School District, where Soberano works, has recruited more than 50 teachers from the Philippines since 2015. They hold J-1 visas, which allow them to work temporarily in the United States, like au pairs or camp counselors, but offer no path to citizenship. More than 2,800 foreign teachers arrived on American soil last year through the J-1, according to the State Department, up from about 1,200 in 2010.
“In these times, you have to be innovative and creative in recruiting,” said Patricia Davis-Tussey, Pendergast’s head of human resources. “We embrace diversity and really gain a lot from the cultural exchange experience. Our students do as well.”
Much like other foreign workers, Soberano went into debt to find a job in the United States. He said he used savings and a bank loan to pay $12,500, about three years’ worth of his salary in the Philippines, to Petro-Fil Manpower Services. That is a Filipino company of Ligaya Avenida, a California-based consultant who recruits and screens teachers for the J-1.
The payment covered Soberano’s airfare and rent for his first few months in Arizona, as well as a $2,500 fee for Avenida and a $3,500 fee to Alliance Abroad Group, a Texas-based company that is an official State Department sponsor for J-1 visa holders. The J-1 lasts three years, with the option for two one-year extensions. For each year he works in the United States, Soberano will owe Alliance Abroad an additional $1,000 visa renewal fee.
“You have to make some sacrifices to leave your family way back home,” he said.
School districts that recruit teachers like Soberano say that they have few other options because they can’t find enough American educators willing to work for the pay on offer. They say that the foreign teachers are being given valuable opportunities, and that American students are enriched by learning from them. But critics argue the teachers are being taken advantage of in a practice that helps keep wages low and perpetuates yearslong austerity policies.
Though J-1 teachers account for only a tiny share of Arizona’s 60,000 public schoolteachers, international recruitment has spread quickly in recent years, as sponsor companies market themselves to districts facing shortages, and word spreads among administrators. According to the State Department, 183 Arizona teachers were granted new J-1 visas last year, up from 17 in 2010.
“Rather than increase salaries, districts may once again resort to recruiting internationally as a way to solve the teacher shortage,” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, a national teachers’ union, said in a statement. She added that while her union “will fight for everyone working in our communities and educating our kids to have fair wages, rights and workplace protections regardless of where they’re from, the use of the J-1 visa program to fill long-term shortages is an abuse of an exchange program.”