SHELL KNOB, Mo. —
The gymnasium of the Shell Knob school was a dangerous place for any spectator to be on a recent Friday afternoon as an eighth-grade class carried out an epic dodgeball match.
In the thick of it all was Carles Estorach, who might easily have been mistaken for one of his students if he didn’t tower more than a foot above their heads or have his coach’s whistle dangling from his neck.
Estorach, a 23-year-old native of Barcelona, Spain, is wrapping up a successful first year as Shell Knob’s physical education and health teacher. But having struggled to obtain a work visa, he faces automatic deportation this summer despite having built a legal life for himself in Southwest Missouri over the past four years.
“As it is right now, I’m out of options,” he said last week. “I don’t have any legal leverage anymore.”
For the past several months, Estorach has been pursuing the H-1B visa, the most common work visa offered by the United States. It employs foreign workers in occupations that require specialized knowledge. Qualified applicants must have, among other requirements, at least a bachelor’s degree in their field of employment. The visa is good for three years and can be renewed for a maximum of six total years.
Although this type of visa is a non-immigration visa, its holder can begin the lengthy process of applying for a green card and permanent residency while the visa is still valid.
Since the Immigration Act of 1990, the government has capped the number of H-1B visas issued each year. This year, as in recent years, the cap is set at 65,000, while an additional 20,000 slots are earmarked for workers with advanced degrees.
Applicants for the H-1B visa must have the sponsorship of their employer, who file on their behalf and pay the application fees, which can total thousands of dollars. Most of the visas are snapped up for workers by big corporations such as Infosys, an Indian consulting and outsourcing company with a location in Texas.
In working on his application, Estorach said it became clear that those visas are granted heavily in the technical fields. History confirms his suspicion: About 71 percent of H-1B petitions approved in fiscal year 2012 were for workers in occupations relating to computers, engineering, architecture or surveying, while only 6.2 percent of approved petitions were for workers in education, according to a 2013 report by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
“Pretty much they narrowed the specification of this group to these professionals due to the fact that they’re lacking professionals in those fields,” Estorach said.
Moreover, the Shell Knob school did not file a H-1B visa petition on Estorach’s behalf. Principal Shelly Fransen said the K-8 school would have struggled to come up with the funds to pay the application fees. And although Estorach might be the most popular candidate, approximately 20 other qualified individuals have also applied to fill the position next year, she said.
He’s not alone in facing these difficulties. Foreigners who are trying to live and work in the United States — and who don’t already have relatives living here — don’t have many legal work options, said David Cox, a St. Louis-based immigration attorney who is not involved in Estorach’s case.
Cox said students hoping to stay in America most commonly try to obtain the H-1B visa, but it’s not easy to find an employer willing to sponsor them because associated costs become the burden of the employer. He also said the visa is hard to obtain because of the limited number granted each year by the government.
“That’s the traditional path, but it’s fraught with difficulty,” he said.