Visa Suspensions Threaten Immersion Schools in Louisiana

The ban on all new J-1 visas declared by Donald Trump on June 22 has dealt a blow to French-English immersion schools in Louisiana, which depend on these temporary work permits for recruiting Francophone teachers.
Outside Prien Lake Elementary School in Lake Charles, Louisiana. © French Consulate in New Orleans

Worry hangs heavy in the air of Baton Rouge, the state capital of Louisiana. Around 2,200 students might be left without a full education if the 73 teachers in the Foreign Associate Teacher Program are banned from entering the United States in August. Louisiana depends on these international professionals. In the French and Spanish immersion classes, they teach sciences and math in their native languages alongside Anglophone staff. They have been filling gaps in the number of immersion teachers in Louisiana since 1972.

Some 51 Francophone teachers – 38 from France, 9 from Belgium, 2 from the Ivory Coast, 1 from Nigeria, and 1 from Cameroon – were supposed to arrive in Baton Rouge on August 1. They were set to attend a training course held over several days at the headquarters of the CODOFIL, the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana, before joining one of the state’s 34 French-English bilingual schools. However, Presidential Proclamation 10052 has put everything on hold.

On the orders of Donald Trump, certain employment visas – including the J-1, used to bring foreign teachers to the United States – have been suspended until December 31, 2020. The decision was designed to protect American workers who have been seriously affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, but is now threatening dual-language programs in Louisiana.

September Uncertainty

“It’s up in the air,” says a staff member at the elementary school in Mamou, a small town located 50 miles northwest of Lafayette. The bilingual program launched in 2017 is currently awaiting five Francophone teachers. “All our teachers have reached the end of their 2-year visa and need to be replaced this summer,” says Michael Lombas, the assistant superintendent of the Evangeline Parish School Board. “This visa suspension is a devastating blow to our immersion program.” In New Orleans, the Lycée Français de La Nouvelle-Orléans might be down 17 people – a third of their teaching staff. “If they don’t come, it’ll be a disaster,” says Peggy Feehan, the executive director of the CODOFIL, the agency which manages recruitment.

Teachers, activists, students’ parents, and politicians have been working together to revive French in Louisiana for more than 50 years. Together, they founded the state’s first bilingual immersion class in 1983 in an elementary school in Lake Charles. These same people are now fighting to save the teaching exchange program. “They haven’t slammed the door in our faces yet,” says Peggy Feehan. “We have our foot in the door and we’re going to keep pushing.”

There is one glimmer of hope: The presidential proclamation does allow for a number of exceptions. According to paragraph 3.b.iv, people “whose entry would be in the national interest” should not be affected by the suspension of visas. This measure appears to be aimed at scientists helping to fight the coronavirus, but it could also apply to Francophone teachers in bilingual schools. The interpretation of this dispensation is left to the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Homeland Security.

The CODOFIL has called on the French embassy in Washington and the French ministry of foreign affairs to appeal to these U.S. government agencies. The governor and the lieutenant governor of Louisiana have both written to Donald Trump. And on June 29, the state’s representatives signed a resolution urging the Louisiana congressional delegation to “work” with Donald Trump to find a solution to the visa problem. Similar initiatives are underway in Utah where bilingual classes are also very popular, with 12 Francophone teachers expected this year. Around 200 French teachers are said to be affected by the presidential proclamation in the United States.

Immersion, a "Pillar" of Louisiana’s Education System

At the local level, a petition is being shared on social media asking those who sign to contact their elected officials. Almost 5,000 people have already shown their support. “Our objective it to show local and federal officials that Louisianans and our allies are all defending immersion as a fundamental pillar of our education system, our culture, and our economy,” says Will McGrew, founder of Télé-Louisiane, the production company that started the petition.

In the meantime, French-English immersion schools are preparing for August as best they can. (A total of 17 out of the state’s 34 schools are affected.) Some of them are considering reducing teaching time to share staff between several classes. French people already living in Louisiana could also be hired as language assistants, while online classes taught from France are another option. “That would be our last resort,” says Peggy Feehan.

Given the time is takes to book a meeting at the embassy, to receive visas by registered mail, and to organize moving to the United States, Francophone teachers will probably not be in America in August. What’s more, they are obliged to quarantine for 14 days when they do arrive. Despite the challenges, “going back to school in September seems realistic,” according to the director of the CODOFIL. “We refuse to accept defeat; we will keep moving forward as normal!”