Credit: Devon Bowman

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If the foundation of a good school is good teachers, Janney Elementary was lucky to have Margo Swire.

In school evaluations, Swire consistently met and exceeded performance targets. Mark Davidson, whose 11-year-old daughter was in Swire’s class this year, says she was an excellent teacher at what’s one of the best public elementary schools in the city. “She didn’t just go to school to teach the lessons,” he says. “She went to school to educate the kids.”

But on May 30, two weeks before classes let out for the summer, the 29-year-old Canadian lost her job teaching fifth grade at the Tenleytown school. D.C. Public Schools administrators informed Swire in an e-mail that she would be let go at the end of the school year because her visa had expired.

That was true. Swire, who had taught at Janney for six years, had been working illegally since May 13. But Swire says she got stuck with an expired visa only because DCPS reneged on its promise to help her get a permanent-resident visa—the so-called “green card.”

“I’m just really, really pissed at my employer,” Swire says. “And the anger hasn’t really set in yet.”

For its part, DCPS seems confused about what, if any, promise it made to Swire, and what, if anything, it is willing to do to keep its foreign teachers.

Swire, who moved from the Toronto area to the United States at age 14, was hired to teach at Janney in 2000 after she graduated from the University of Virginia with a master’s degree in education.

In order to hire a foreigner, DCPS sponsored Swire’s H-1B visa, which allowed her to work for three years. In most cases, H-1B visas are renewable for a second three-year stint. According to DCPS, about 200 teachers currently hold H-1B visas.

In 2003, when Swire’s first visa expired, she hired an immigration lawyer, and her visa was extended. Then she started to worry; Swire says she called DCPS’ human-resources office soon after renewing her visa, explained that she had only three years to get a green card, and asked for help.

“They were clueless,” she says. “They really didn’t know what I was talking about.” But in February 2006, the school system seemed to come to Swire’s rescue. She received a letter from Valarie Sheppard, DCPS’ director of staffing and employment services, explaining the procedure for assisting teachers to apply for permanent residency.

The letter said any teacher interested in participating needed to file several documents with human resources including a teacher’s license, a current visa, and a current teacher’s evaluation. Swire says she turned in the documents long before the deadline.

Then she waited. The 2006 school year ended, and the next began without Swire hearing anything. Early this school year, Swire says she called DCPS to check on her status. She says human resources told her it would get back to her, but it never did.

Swire says she realizes she didn’t pressure the DCPS enough. She believed it was working on her visa and that everything would turn out OK. “I was kind of holding my breath,” she says.

Later, with time winding down, and her employer seemingly doing little to keep her around, Swire applied for a permanent resident visa though her brother, who became a U.S. citizen after his employer, Lockheed Martin Corp., sponsored his green card.

According to a local immigration lawyer, it is common for employers, including schools, to sponsor foreign employees for permanent resident visas. To do so, schools need to file a petition with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (what used to be the Immigration and Naturalization Service) and also an application to the federal Department of Labor.

But in a statement delivered through a DCPS spokesperson, Sheppard said DCPS does not help teachers with H-1B visas become permanent residents. After she was shown the letter Sheppard sent Swire, the spokesperson said Swire was not eligible because her H-1B visa was expired. After it was pointed out that the letter went out in 2006, and Swire’s visa expired in May, the spokesperson said DCPS in the past helped teachers gain permanent resident status, but “immigration laws changed.”

Asked if H-1B teachers were informed of the change, the spokesperson said she did not know.

Whatever the school system’s attitude toward immigration laws, there is apparently some wiggle room: Although Swire’s visa expired in mid-May, DCPS allowed her to complete the school year, which ended a month later. “Maybe they didn’t want to pay for a sub,” Swire says.

After the last day of school, Swire packed up her classroom. Then she put her things in storage and moved to Oregon to wait for the visa her brother sponsored to come through.

“It’s like taking your whole life, rolling it up into a ball and setting it on fire,” she says. Swire is hoping to receive permanent resident status before fall so she can teach again. She does not want to return to Canada.

What she really wanted was to stay at Janney. “It’s a great school with a very involved community. I made a lot of good friendships. There are a lot of people who expect to see me every day,” she says.

Regardless of where she ends up, it won’t be at her old fifth-grade job. That position has been filled.