Uncertain future for hundreds of Jamaican teachers in US

HUNDREDS of Jamaican educators in North Carolina, USA, on the J-1 Teacher Exchange Programme are in limbo over their ability to remain in the USA and work legally, due to delays they are experiencing in obtaining a no-objection statement from the Jamaica Government.

One of the teachers, who spoke to the Jamaica Observer on condition of anonymity, explained that if other educators who entered the USA in 2015 are not in receipt of the no-objection statement before June 30, then they will be forced to leave the USA.

“We’re given three years initially. After the three years you can extend your contract by two years without having any go ahead from Jamaica. After five years, however, you must get a no-objection letter from the Ministry of Finance and Ministry of Education to say there are no ties.

“What has happened is that it is taking a very, very long time. We are hundreds of teachers who at this point have signed contracts and would love to take up the job offers but we cannot because we are waiting on the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Finance,” the teacher said. “First it goes through education, then education sends it to finance, then from finance it goes to the Miami Consulate and that’s when we know whether or not Jamaica says we have ties such as mortgages, student loan, unpaid taxes. Even if you are a guarantor for someone at the Student Loan Bureau, you are obligated. The thing about it is you can pay off your amount so that shouldn’t stop the process. When we try to get in contact with the finance ministry to find out what is going on, there is no response. Nobody answers the phone. Nobody is able to give us an update to say this is what is happening, this is where you stand,” the teacher said.

The teacher also told the Sunday Observer that fellow colleagues have been left in the cold as efforts to contact both Government ministries have been unsuccessful and in instances where they do get through, they are told that their files cannot be found.

“There is no way for us to know what is going on in Jamaica. No one is answering. One morning I got up at 8:30, called the number I have straight until 4:30 pm and not once did someone answer the phone. The last time someone checked upon me was April 14 and that’s when I was told my documents are at the finance ministry. Now it’s over a month – nothing. I called the Miami Consulate and was told it’s not there and they would tell me when the correspondence is at Miami. There is no contact from the Ministry of Finance. Persons who contacted the Ministry of Education are being told that their papers are lost and they don’t know where their files are, so we are basically in limbo right now. One person called Ministry of Education and heard they are trying to locate aspects of her file and she will have to wait until school starts back before anything is done. She is devastated. She would have a longer wait because from Ministry of Education it goes to finance,” the teacher said, adding that the hundreds affected span North Carolina, Virginia and Florida.

Both the Ministry of Education, Youth and Information, and the Ministry of Finance and the Public Service were made aware of the issue and sent questions. Communication personnel from both ministries acknowledged receipt of the questions and indicated that were sent to the relevant individuals to provide a response. Up to press time no response was given.

The J-1 Teacher Programme is a non-immigrant cultural exchange, which gives foreign teachers the opportunity to teach in accredited primary and secondary schools in the United States. Teachers may work in a US school for up to three years, with the possibility of a one or two-year extension.

The purpose of the teachers needing the no-objection statement is to satisfy one of the five statutory bases from which one can apply for a J-1 waiver in order to change his status from a J-1 to a H-1B visa, which permits a maximum stay of six years as opposed to the five years on a J-1 visa.

The J-1 is based on programmes while the H-1B uses employers as sponsors. There is a limited list of occupations that qualify for the J-1, while the H-1B allows people from a wide range of jobs to apply. If an applicant’s J-1 visa has a two-year home residency requirement then he must go back to his home country for two years once he has completed his J-1 stint before he can apply for any type of work-based visas (H-1B) or green cards.

There are, however, exemptions to this home residency requirement through obtaining a J-1 waiver. The J-1 waiver basically revokes this two-year limitation if and, only if, the applicant meets the necessary requirements. In this case the no-objection letter would pave the way for the J-1 waiver.

“If we do not get the no-objection letter, we can’t get the waiver. So by the end of June we have to leave the country and go back to Jamaica without jobs. So you can just imagine having a job here and because of this delay you have to return to Jamaica with no job? The process would have to start all over. We resigned from jobs, we are in our fifth year now. We have no jobs going back to. Here we have contracts, we have signed the contracts and we are waiting. After you get the no-objection letter from the Ministry of Finance it goes to Miami, Miami sends it to the Department of State and from the Department of State to USCIS (United States Citizenship and Immigration Services). That process takes roughly 10 weeks and our visa expires the end of June. We are given a grace period of 30 days at the end of June. We really don’t know. The process can be expedited, but the most important part is to get the letter from Jamaica to say we are not bonded there so it can be expedited,” the teacher said.

Among the worry are mounting expenses that they will have to incur if the no-objection statement is not received.

“We’ve been here for five years, we have apartments. My lease ends in June. If I stay an additional month without the new lease agreement I have to pay an additional US$150 on my US$700 rent. I got an offer in a different state, however, I don’t know what is happening so I have to stay where I am,” the educator said.

Moreover, the educator maintained that the teachers just want answers to determine the way forward.

“We just need to know what is going on. We are uncertain right now and it makes you anxious. I consulted my lawyer and I got a letter saying, ‘I know you have a job offer but if you do not have that waiver in hand by the end of June you have to go home’. The e-mail said we are given a grace period. However, if after the grace period ends and the waiver comes through, my lawyer said there is no guarantee that USCIS will say you didn’t overstay your welcome.”

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