The exodus of Filipino Teachers to the U.S. started in 1986 due to teacher shortage in the Catholic Archdiocese of New York and New Jersey. Filipino Teachers came to New York in search of the American dream. Loved ones were left behind and these teachers faced the challenge of teaching in a completely different school setting.
The first three years were painfully spent adjusting to a new life and pedagogical culture. But that was just part of the problems and challenges. The primary concern of the new breed of Thomasites was their immigration status. Back then, the longest period of stay for teachers on H-1B visas was five years. Without permanent residency status, that meant going back home and leaving behind the golden opportunities America offers.
In 1989 an immigration bill was in the process of becoming a law in the United State Congress. The bill contained a provision making H-1B visas good for six years. The added year was crucial to teachers’ permanent residency applications. With this knowledge, a small group of New York teachers met in February1989 in Queens, New York, to organize a group that would lobby for the inclusion of a one-year extension to H-1B visa holders in the immigration bill. Unknown to the New York Teachers, a group of teachers in New Jersey had already met for the same purpose.
The movement snowballed. Emboldened by the need to help the big number of teachers in the tri-state area, Filipino teachers in both New York and New Jersey decided to collaborate and held a meeting at the Sacred Heart School in Manhattan to work for a common cause: to write to U.S. congressmen and senators for the extension of one more year of stay for H-1B visa holders. That day the Association of Filipino Teachers of America (AFTA) was formally founded.
The teachers’ lobbying efforts paid off when “The Immigration Act of 1990” became a law. Hence, the five-year stay became six years! Most of the first group of teachers got their green cards in 1991, exactly six years of their stay in the U.S. The extension meant that the Filipino teachers did not have to go back to the Philippines while waiting for their green cards. The following years, more teachers got their green cards, giving them security of staying in the United States permanently.
This was AFTA’s first major accomplishment. The teachers realized that by working together for a common goal, they could act as one strong body with one powerful voice that could speak for the welfare of the Filipino Teachers in the United States.