Caribbean Teachers: The ‘Indentured Servants’ of the NYC Board of Education

Judith Hall Guyanese-born NYC High School Teacher

As of late, we’ve seen a resurgence of the labor movement of sorts. Unionized workers all across the country have banded together in a show of solidarity. As they fight to maintain not only their collective bargaining agreements, in most cases, they’re also fighting to maintain their dignity hearkening back to Martin Luther King Jr’s show of support for Memphis sanitation workers. As these various movements across the country grows, the story of one particular group of workers paramount to the success of our future isn’t being heard.
Hundreds of teachers from the Caribbean claim that New York’s Department of Education (DOE) lured them to city schools with false promises of green cards and financial aid. In a massive rally on the steps of City Hall in lower Manhattan on Sunday, the teachers, supported by the New York-based Association of International Educators (AIE) and the Black Institute, demanded immediate action and response to what they described as “the lack of support from the DOE, which has resulted in the 10-year uphill battle to get on the right path to permanent residency.”

AIE chair, Judith Hall, said that the teachers have been treated as “indentured servants.”

“How is this possible when we were chosen because we were the best and brightest our countries had to offer?” she asked.

“This is an egregious situation, and we are demanding redress on the city, state, federal and international levels,” she added.

A report released on Sunday by the Black Institute on behalf of the AIE, entitled, Broken Promises: The Story of Caribbean International Teachers in New York City’s Public Schools, claimed that the Caribbean teachers were first lured to New York by promises of continued educational opportunities, housing assistance, and a path to permanent residency in the United States.

It said the teachers “uprooted their families in the hopes of redefining a better future.”

Recruited by New York City Public Schools, beginning in 2001, the AIE said it was formed by Caribbean teachers, “who continue to feel victimized.”

The association provides them with a support group, as well as the opportunity to combine efforts to find a solution.

The AIE said, in early 2001, when the U.S. economy was booming and there was a teacher shortage, more than 500 teachers from the Caribbean came to New York City schools to work.

After almost 10 years, the AIE said most of the teachers still lack green cards, adding their immigration status “makes it impossible for their spouses and children to work.”

The teachers are, therefore, demanding a meeting with Schools Chancellor Cathie Black and legal assistance from the Education Department.

President and founder of the Black Institute, Bertha Lewis, said the Broken Promises report highlights the “hidden nexus of education and immigration reform.

“These teachers were recruited to teach in some the most difficult and poorest school districts.  They did what was asked of them, and they deserve to be treated fairly and humanely,” she said, adding, “promises were made, promises were broken; this report calls upon the DOE to keep its promises.”

Trinidad-born Antoinette Nesbitt, who came to New York in August 2001, said she is frustrated and outraged by the lack of respect shown to Caribbean teachers.

“Teachers are professional role models for school children every day in the classroom, yet this process of our teachers obtaining green cards has been drawn out over many years because the Department of Education chosen attorneys have classified us as unskilled workers,” said Nesbitt, who has been teaching special education at Public School 276 in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn ever since her arrival here.

“This classification is costing us financially. We have to pay visa-related fees annually, and we experience lost income because our spouses and dependents are unable to work,” she added, fearing that she and her colleagues would be deported back to the Caribbean if they are laid off because of a lack of green card. (source)In any discussion centered on education or education reform, it is always noted that our teachers are undervalued. Which is a shame in itself here in these United States of America, supposedly in the wealthiest nation in the world. But to recruit teachers from other countries – the best of the best in their field of occupation – and not hold up on your end of the bargain, only to have them existing pretty much as undocumented workers is just down right ridiculous. It’s especially ridiculous in this supposed land of opportunity and the free.

Yet in 2011, these teachers are treated like slave labor, fresh off the Middle Passage. The difference being, they were invited here, and are actually card-carrying union members. It’s a shame they’re good enough to educate children, but not worthy of being respected as professionals. Instead, by virtue of being from third world countries, they’re treated like migrant agricultural workers. As a son of the Caribbean, and also of Caribbean educators who came before me, this is truly disappointing. What’s next, undocumented doctors and nurses? One has to wonder, were they recruited from Europe would this be an issue?

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