WASHINGTON, D.C. – Attorney General Karl A. Racine today announced a lawsuit against Earl Francisco Lopez and his teacher exchange companies – Bilingual Teacher Exchange (BTE) and related entities – for preying upon dozens of foreign teachers working in D.C. schools. The Office of the Attorney General (OAG) alleges that Lopez and his companies falsely represented themselves to the teachers as federally designated visa “sponsor” companies and as representatives of D.C. Public Schools (DCPS). In the complaint, OAG alleges the companies misled teachers into paying for visa and sponsorship support services they failed to provide, charged extremely high fees, required teachers to enter into high-cost installment loan contracts to pay for services, and even threatened teachers with deportation to coerce them into signing new contracts with high monthly payments. In its lawsuit, OAG is seeking an injunction against BTE to stop their unlawful business practices, a court order voiding the high-cost installment loan contracts, full restitution for the teachers who were harmed, and penalties for violating District law.
“The Office of the Attorney General brought this lawsuit to hold Bilingual Teacher Exchange and Mr. Lopez accountable for preying on vulnerable foreign teachers who were trying to navigate a new culture and a complex visa system,” said AG Racine. “These hardworking educators came to the District to teach D.C. students. Mr. Lopez and his companies defrauded them, provided little to no services, and instead trapped them in a cycle of debt, late fees, and threats of deportation. Now, we’re working to get them the relief they deserve.”
Since at least 2015, D.C.-based Bilingual Teacher Exchange, Bilingual Teacher Exchange Program, Ives Hall Consulting, Inc., and Bert Corona Leadership Institute, Inc. (collectively “BTE”) has recruited qualified and experienced teachers from foreign countries who want to work in the U.S. through a State Department exchange program. These companies also claim to provide training and support services to teachers they recruit, including helping them secure employment at U.S. schools, cultural orientation, professional development opportunities, in-country support, transportation, and housing. Currently, there are at least 45 foreign exchange teachers working in District area schools, including DCPS and public charter schools, who were recruited by these companies. Many of these teachers come from Colombia and teach Spanish-language classes.
To work in the United States, foreign teachers must first apply for what is known as a J-1 visa through the State Department’s Exchange Visitor Program. The program allows teachers to work full-time at accredited schools for three years, with a possible two-year extension. Currently, the State Department has a list of agencies and private organizations that have been designated as “sponsors” for the J-1 visa program, which are responsible for screening exchange program teachers, issuing required immigration forms, providing teachers with information and orientation, and monitoring their progress in the United States. Teachers pay an annual fee to cover the cost of visa processing and other services, typically between $1,000 and $1,500. Often, foreign teachers have a direct relationship with their J-1 visa sponsors, but in some cases, third parties serve as recruiters for visa sponsors.
An OAG investigation revealed that although BTE was a third-party teacher recruiter, it led teachers to believe that they could not work at District schools without entering into a contract with BTE and paying much higher fees than those charged by legitimate J-1 visa sponsors. OAG alleges that the companies systematically engaged in unfair and deceptive trade practices in violation of the District’s Consumer Protection Procedures Act and harmed teachers by:
- Misleading them into paying extremely high fees for J-1 visa sponsorship: BTE falsely claimed to be a State Department-authorized sponsor that teachers needed to pay to obtain their visas. In reality, BTE acted as an intermediary for the true sponsor, International Teacher Exchange Services (ITES) and did not disclose that ITES was the true sponsor. While ITES charged between $1,000 and $1,500 annually to provide sponsorship, BTE entered into yearly contracts with teachers charging them between $3,700 and $13,000 in fees. BTE then paid ITES the sponsorship fee and pocketed the remaining funds.
- Misleading them into believing they could only work in District schools if they worked with BTE: BTE falsely claimed to be affiliated with DCPS in communications and in contracts with teachers and led them to believe that they could only work for DCPS if they also worked with BTE. In fact, teachers who had been offered positions at DCPS did not have to work with BTE, and could use any State Department-authorized visa sponsor to obtain a J-1 visa.
- Failing to provide teachers with training and support they paid for: In contracts with teachers, BTE promises services like placement in a school, visa eligibility screening, pre-arrival preparation, travel assistance, orientation, and professional development, among others. In fact, BTE failed to provide many of these services. In reality, teachers had to secure their own employment offers and arrange and pay for their own transportation to obtain visas and to come to the United States. Once they arrived in the United States, BTE offered little to no support. In one instance, a teacher was unpaid for more than two months because of a mix-up, and despite promises to correct the issue, BTE never took action.
- Threatening teachers with loss of their J-1 visa and deportation for failure to pay: BTE threatened teachers with losing their visas and being deported when they were unable to make their monthly payments to BTE. The companies also used the same threats to coerce teachers into signing subsequent annual contracts after the end of their first year. However, BTE had no authority to terminate or cancel a teacher’s visa.
Additionally, OAG alleges that BTE violated the District’s Interest and Usury Law and the District’s Wage Theft Act. They violated the Interest and Usury Law by charging late fees that regularly exceeded the legal limit of 5 percent of the amount of the late payment, and by beginning to charge late fees starting at the sixth day after a missed payment. Under District law, late fees can only begin 10 days after payment was due. BTE violated the Wage Theft Act by failing to pay teachers for work that they performed. BTE offered teachers the opportunity to perform administrative tasks for BTE in exchange for reducing their fees. After teachers performed the work, BTE would refuse to reduce their fees and would also not pay them for the hours they worked.
A copy of the complaint is available at: https://oag.dc.gov/sites/default/files/2019-04/Bilingual_Teacher_Exchange_J-1_Visa_Complaint.pdf
For Teachers Working in the District through Bilingual Teacher Exchange
If you are a foreign teacher working with BTE in the District, please call the OAG Consumer Protection Hotline at (202) 442-9828.
How to Report Unfair Business Practices
To report scams, fraud, or unfair business practices, you can submit a consumer complaint by calling OAG’s Consumer Protection Hotline at (202) 442-9828 or by .