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International teacher exchange program halted, leaving some foreign teachers in limbo

Posted at 8:18 PM, Aug 05, 2020

With immigration restrictions in place and limits on foreign workers, programs like the J-1 visa teacher program have been put on hold. This has impacted both foreign teachers in the US and those who were scheduled to teach here.

Melvin Inojosa and Stella Indiongco are both from the Philippines, working in the U.S. as part of the J-1 Visa teacher program. The program gives foreign educators the opportunity to teach in the U.S.

“We have teachers in about 15 states right now” James Bell, the chief operating officer at Alliance Abroad, said.

Alliance Abroad is one of many cultural exchange organizations connecting foreign teachers to U.S. schools and sponsoring them.

“COVID has significantly impacted everything relating to J-1 teachers,” Bell said. “The president's proclamation on immigration essentially suspended J-1 teachers into coming into the country. And I have upwards of 100 that should be here by now.”

President Donald Trump announced an extension to a temporary ban on foreign workers back in June. Based on immigration service data, the number of people affected was estimated at 500,000 people. The exact number of teachers impacted is unclear.

The restrictions only apply to new workers coming to the U.S. For current workers, it means something else.

“My close supposed to go back home because it's the end of her fifth year,” Indiongco said. “But because of the pandemic and shortage of teachers and freeze hiring, her district actually let her stay and extend another year.”

Some teachers with expiring contracts were asked to stay. Indiongco herself had already planned to be in the U.S. for two more years, but her summer plans were impacted.

“I wasn't able to see my family at all this year,” she said. The same happened for Inojosa.

“My hair is already long because I only get my haircut in the Philippines. Every summer...we go back to the Philippines,” Inojosa said.

The purpose of the decades-old cultural exchange program is to introduce American students to other cultures -- something that has also been hindered due to COVID-19.

“I use food to share my culture,” Inojosa said. “They said it’s kind of a bad timing to gather and eat together, so right now we are limited to our actions regarding sharing our culture.”

“I wasn't able to do any cultural exchange activity at all,” Indiongco said.

J-1 teachers are navigating a new challenge. A new way of teaching, away from their home country. Inojosa and Indiongco are both pivoting to online learning.

Inojosa’s typically full classroom with projects decorating the walls and shelves, will look a little more empty this year. The future of teaching and the J-1 program remains largely unknown.

“The immigration ban will be in play through the end of December,” Bell said. That date could change. Current teachers fear this could make the program less desirable moving forward.

“Since all the J-1 visas are not processed at all, they're stuck because they have no work there. They have no work here because they cannot come anyway,” Indiongco said.

“Some of my friends waited for a very long time to grab this opportunity to enjoy the J-1 program,” Inojosa said.

“J-1 visa is like a bridge to our dreams, coming from a third world country. I hate to say it, but coming from a third world country, everything is kind of slow,” Indiongco said.

Even with the changing climate, Indiongco and Inojosa are gearing up to teach their students in whatever form necessary.

“If I'm called to do my job, I will definitely do it,” Inojosa said.