Lilian Velazquez Acosta offers daily English lessons to a group of women in her tiny kitchen, pointing to words in a book for her pupils to recite. Doing so helps keep her mind off the possibility that she could be deported.
Acosta, 54, said she lost her teaching position and a chance at becoming an American citizen because officials at Twin Rivers Unified School District failed to send a letter to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services acknowledging she worked for them. She learned too late that the misstep caused her work visa to expire in September 2012.
Acosta held a coveted H-1B visa, issued annually to 65,000 skilled temporary workers who have at least a bachelor’s degree. Most of the visas go to workers with computer-related jobs, according to a 2013 report from the Brookings Institution.
Only a handful of local teachers have that particular visa, although immigration law expert and UC Davis School of Law Dean Kevin Johnson said the designation is not rare for educators.
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Acosta had previously worked at two other California school districts when she was hired in August 2009 to teach Spanish at Twin Rivers. She was laid off in 2010, but returned to Twin Rivers part time in 2011 and full time in 2012, teaching four classes of Spanish and a college readiness class at Creative Connections Arts Academy.
The district sent her a letter dated Sept. 26, 2012, congratulating her for reaching tenure. On May 10, 2013, the Twin Rivers human resources department confirmed her renewal as a Spanish teacher for the next school year.
But five days later, Acosta received a district letter saying her work permit had expired and she was no longer allowed to work.
She blames the district for “incompetence” and “ignorance” in handling her visa paperwork. Documents supplied by Acosta show the district applied for an extension of her work visa, but not until more than a year after its expiration, at which point it was too late. She said they also failed to submit paperwork that would have shown government officials that the lapse was not her fault.
When Acosta reached out to immigration officials for help, they told her to return to Paraguay to apply for a new visa. If she goes that route, however, she will not be able to return for 10 years because she overstayed her last visa for more than 12 months.
“I’m not sure there are any options for her to get a valid visa at this point,” Johnson said.
“That’s one of the problems with temporary worker programs,” he added. “The employer has a lot of power. If the employer doesn’t do its work, the employee can pay for it. ... Somebody’s entire life is in upheaval because the paperwork isn’t done.”
Acosta said a school board decision to lay off the top three administrators in human resources in July proves there were problems in the department. The board at the time said it wanted the officials to hold state administrative services credentials, something not required before.
Twin Rivers spokeswoman Zenobia Gerald said the district could not respond to Acosta’s specific allegations because the conditions of her employment are confidential.
She responded generally in a statement: “Twin Rivers Unified School District follows federal law in employing foreign nationals. Any foreign national must provide a valid visa, permitting him or her to work in this country, or an approved and valid work authorization. Upon expiration of a person’s valid visa or work authorization, federal law dictates that an employer may not employ the foreign national, unless the foreign national provides valid proof that he or she is authorized to work in the United States.”
Employers that have a large number of temporary workers often are more knowledgeable about the documentation needed to satisfy immigration than smaller employers, Johnson said.
“Immigration laws are complicated,” he said, adding that this should not be an excuse for employers.
He said Acosta should have been more aware of the status of her paperwork, but that ultimately the district is responsible. “If I had to judge, this is more the school district’s fault than her fault,” Johnson said. “It strikes me, in this instance, that the school district wasn’t very concerned about the employee.”
Acosta isn’t the first employee to complain that Twin Rivers Unified failed to submit the paperwork needed to renew their work visa. District officials “abruptly” withdrew approval of an extension of Sherilene Chycoski’s work visa in 2012, breaching her contract and requiring her to leave the country with little notice, according to a lawsuit she has filed against the district.
Despite the Acosta family’s concern about imminent deportation, immigration officers aren’t likely to come knocking anytime soon. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials have been ordered to focus on convicted criminals and other high-priority cases.
Acosta is the sole provider for her 16-year-old daughter, as well as her sister Doris and 11-year-old nephew. They discuss their options daily. If they leave now, they still have money in the bank to help them resettle. If they wait, they may not have enough cash. Neither woman is eligible to work in the U.S. – Doris’ work visa is also expired – but are concerned they may not be able to get work in Paraguay, either.
“Over there it is normal to consider a person’s age, weight, glasses when hiring,” Acosta said, pointing to her glasses and graying hair.
A $92,000 check for back wages from Twin Rivers, paid in September, will allow the family to get by for about two more years, Doris Acosta said. The payment was mandated by the Department of Labor because it determined Twin Rivers had underpaid the teacher when she was employed with the district.
For now, the women and their children remain in their three-bedroom apartment in North Highlands. Lilian Acosta said she will continue to teach English to the women who show up in her kitchen each morning. There is no charge, but they often come with pineapples, tamales, bread or eggs.
“Whenever we aren’t busy we are here,” she said.