By Chris Roberts
By Joe Eskenazi
By Albert Samaha
By Mike Billings
By Rachel Swan
By Erin Sherbert
By Joe Eskenazi
By Albert Samaha
An H1-B visa requires that an employer sponsor the recipient for a particular job. And, the U.S. Department of Labor mandates that employers meet certain requirements in hiring foreign workers using H1-B visas, including that they pay prevailing wage, and that they publicize the jobs prior to filling them with foreign workers, giving U.S. citizens the right to apply or complain.
Initially, the plan was to bring the Filipino teachers recruited by Avenida to the U.S. on H1-B visas.
After they were selected, each of the 15 teacher candidates was contacted by Eduardo Encinas, the Philippine businessman who was supposed to help them arrange for their visas and travel.
In court papers, Avenida says that she knew Encinas through an associate of her husband's in his international trade business, Avenida & Associates. However, according to San Mateo business filings, Ligaya Avenida also is an owner of Avenida & Associates.
Two Philippine teachers who were offered, but ultimately declined, teaching jobs in San Francisco recall that Avenida introduced Encinas at the Peninsula Hotel orientation. After they were selected, the teachers say, they went to a meeting at a bottled water company in Quezon City (Manila) called Ecogreen International, where Encinas does business.
Encinas gave each of the 15 recruits a written offer for a teaching job from the San Francisco Unified School District, on school district letterhead, signed by Dr. William Rada, assistant superintendent. The offer to Geraldine Oris, who was to be a bilingual teacher in the district, was $29,729 -- starting teacher salary at the time -- for one year beginning in September 1998. Encinas also gave Oris and her colleagues INS forms to complete for H1-B visas, and discussed payment.
"Mr. Encinas [said], 'You pay $3,000 for everything, that includes lawyers' fees, tickets, airfare, and other incidental fees,'" Oris recalls. "'You don't have to pay it all right away. You pay $300 first, and when everything is OK, you pay the rest.'"
In April 1998, Oris says, she paid Encinas $300 and gave him completed paperwork for her visa and a copy of her school transcripts. Katrina dela Cruz, another teacher recruit, says she did the same thing. (Both teachers later filed sworn statements with the NBI about the recruiting.)
At the end of June, Oris received a letter from Avenida, again on SFUSD letterhead, stating that the district had received notification from the INS that the national quota for H1-B visas had been reached, and the federal government would not approve the teachers' applications. Avenida's letter stated that she was exploring options for employing the teachers with a permit used for participants in international exchange programs, known as the J visa.
"Originally, we didn't know about the J visa," Avenida explained in a recent interview. "Until the H1-B visa quota was reached; then we were sort of caught. Immigration told us that they could not approve it."
Avenida says she asked the California Department of Education about sponsoring a visiting teachers exchange program. In July, Encinas called the waiting teachers in Manila to another meeting. According to Oris and dela Cruz, Encinas told them that because the H1-B program was full, the district would be using J visas to bring the teachers to San Francisco. The J visa restricts the teachers to a maximum three-year stay, which will be up next year.
"Some people wanted to go ahead and use J visas and others wanted to wait for the next H1-B [cycle]," says Oris. "I told [Encinas] I'm not getting the job because I wasn't sure about the J visa. And besides, I had already enrolled in school [for a master's degree]."
Dela Cruz also did not accept the position in San Francisco. But neither teacher received her $300 back -- nor, for that matter, did they request it -- which is a matter of particular concern to the NBI, according to investigator Bolivar. The remaining 13 teachers came to San Francisco in August 1998, and began working in the district. None was available for comment. It's unknown if, how, or to whom they paid the remainder of the $3,000. However, part of the discrimination lawsuit against the San Francisco Unified School District filed in 1998 claims that Avenida received some of the money. In a statement filed with the suit, two people involved in elementary school programs said that they were told the following by Mitsi Carmona, one of the Filipino teachers:
"All of the 13 teachers paid $3,000 each to a middleman who said that he is going to share the amount with Ligaya Avenida of the Human Services, SFUSD."
Avenida says that she did not receive any of the money paid to Encinas. And, contrary to what the teachers in Manila say, Avenida claims none of the applicants was required to pay fees in advance.
Although Encinas told the recruits part of their fees would be used to pay lawyers, Avenida says no lawyers were involved in the process. Instead, she says, the California Department of Education handled the visa paperwork. Avenida says Encinas was actually a consultant for the SFUSD, even though he was never paid by the district. She explains the basis for the $3,000 fees this way:
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