Aileen Mercado, the Filipina teacher I profiled throughout the 2005-2006 academic year, completed her three-year commitment to the Baltimore schools in June. By that time, she was well-established here, not only as a special education teacher, but also as the elected leader of the organization representing all the city's Filipino teachers and as an elected member at large of the Baltimore Teachers Union. Her husband and three young children joined her here two years ago, and her children were thriving at their schools in Perry Hall.
As a result, Aileen was one of many Filipino teachers from the first batch Baltimore hired who decided they wanted to continue on. But now, she and at least four other teachers are caught in a bureaucratic entanglement that has left them unable to return to the United States and left their classes staffed with substitutes. (An earlier version of this entry erroneously reported that all five teachers were working in Baltimore; in fact, the other four work for schools in California.) In the Philippines waiting for word on the government's processing of her paperwork, Aileen is home-schooling her two daughters while her son is attending school with a cousin, even though schools there are on a different calendar.
The bureaucracy here is complicated. Aileen and the other four teachers came to the United States on international exchange visas that require them to return to their home country for two years afterwards — or to obtain a waiver of that requirement. Before they can obtain new work visas, the teachers must present proof of that waiver.
The Philippine government has already issued Aileen a statement that it does not object to her returning to the United States, which is necessary for her waiver to be processed. Other teachers were granted visas to return to Baltimore while their waivers were still pending because they had those non-objection statements.
But when Aileen and her four collegues were interviewed at the U.S. embassey, they were told they had to wait until the waiver process is complete, an undetermined number of weeks. The reasons: All five teach special education, and special education teachers are needed in the Philippines, too. The embassy representative told Aileen he was concerned that, if he let her go, she'd stay in the United States illegally in the event her waiver is not approved. That doesn't make sense, given that she already has the document she needs to get it; it's just a matter of waiting for the processing to be complete. E-mails from school system officials attesting to her honesty (which I can also vouch for) have been sent to no avail.
After working in two city middle schools that shut down, Highlandtown and Canton, Aileen is supposed to start teaching this year at the new Afya Public Charter School. I asked Will McKenna, Afya's principal, how her absence is impacting the school. "Not having Aileen is immensely disappointing to us," he replied in an e-mail. While he said the school has been lucky to pick up a good substitute to cover her assignment for the short term, "we’re trying to build a great program for the long term and Aileen is such an important part of that work," he wrote. "The other thing that’s hard is being in limbo. I’ve worked on this now for about a month, talking with Senator Mikulski’s office, working with Dr. Alonso, etc.; and there were times when I thought her return was imminent and times, like now, when I have no idea. That’s hard for sure — the waiting and not knowing." He said he and Aileen talk regularly, and she's done a great job sending back lesson plans. "I know this hurts her as much as it does us — more so, probably."
For the first story in the series I wrote about Aileen, published back in August 2005, keep reading. The picture above was shot by Sun photographer Chris Assaf at Highlandtown.
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