While their neighbors string holiday lights and set out festive decorations in their yards, the only thing adorning the outside of Leonardo and Gabriella Legora’s home is a Realtor’s sign.
The Legoras received word last week that their immigration case with the U.S. Department of Labor has been closed and they must leave the United States by Dec. 31 or face undocumented, or “illegal,” status in the country. If they remain in the U.S. beyond that date, they’ll be subject to removal, according the Labor Department.
“Selling this house is breaking my heart,” Gabriella Legora said Thursday. “What we dread is, of course, happening.”
Leo and Gaby, as they’re known, both teach Spanish in Culpeper County. Leo teaches at Eastern View High School, where he is also the head coach of the boys’ soccer team, while Gaby teaches at Culpeper County High School, where she is the language department head. Their two daughters, ages 5 and 6, are both U.S. citizens.
In 2012, the Legoras began the arduous process to legally remain in the country, applying for “PERMs”—the first step toward obtaining coveted “Green Cards”—with Culpeper County Public Schools as their employer sponsor.
Prior to their PERM applications, they maintained legal status through H1-B visas, with a lifetime allowance of six years, while the clock ticked to secure permanent work status. Leo arrived in 2005 from Argentina, while Gaby came in 2008 from Chile, both on a J-1, or “cultural ambassador” visa at a time when language teachers were in short supply in Virginia.
The Labor Department challenged that application, according to Shaina Silvers, immigration attorney for both the school division and the Legoras. While the case remained in appeal, the couple was able to remain due to time extensions on their H1-B visas.
As long as the government didn’t hand down a decision, they could continue to renew their H1-B visas, Silvers said. That state of limbo continued for four years.
But a paperwork glitch in August may have sealed their fate.
Before they could decide whether to initiate new applications—the estimated processing times had dropped and they were considering that action—the Labor Department handed down a decision. It denied their applications, sending word on July 20 that the requested paperwork for an audit had not been received in the proper time frame.
The Legoras, the school division and their joint attorney balked—the required response had been sent—and they had the Federal Express tracking number to prove it.
Concerned residents of Culpeper quickly began a push to keep the Legoras in the country. Del. Nick Frietas, R–Culpeper, and Sen. Bryce Reeves, R–Spotsylvania, sent letters to the Labor Department and federal immigration officials urging them to let the Legoras stay.
Marshall Keene, a candidate for Stevensburg District School Board seat at the time, circulated a petition that garnered more than 300 signatures asking the federal government to take a second look at the Legoras’ situation.
”Knowing Leo Legora’s commitment and passion for his students, players, and Eastern View High School, I was honored to assist the Legora family by collecting signatures to submit on their behalf in an effort to help them stay in the country,” Keene said Thursday. “I sincerely hope that they will be able to return soon and am willing to do what I can to assist them in a speedy return. They will truly be missed.”
Rep. Dave Brat wrote a letter to Secretary of Labor R. Alexander Acosta, providing the tracking number for the lost paperwork and requesting that the department reopen the case.
“Mr. and Mrs. Legora are the upstanding, hardworking immigrants this country wants to attract,” Brat wrote. “They are a wonderful addition to our nation and are contributing to their community. Please do what you can to ensure they remain a part of our community.”
Although Sens. Mark Warner’s and Tim Kaine’s offices initially expressed interest in their predicament and requested information from the couple, neither senator attempted to intervene. Gaby said she can’t understand that and Leo called it “disappointing,” but both are grateful to the local elected officials who did step in to help them.
The Labor Department responded to Brat that the school division did not appeal the case before the deadline of Aug. 21 so the case was closed. It said documentation provided by the Legoras could not be reviewed, “as they are beyond the appellate time frame.”
Michelle Metzgar, director of human resources for the school division, said the school division provided all of the proper paperwork in the correct time frame.
Hiring new Spanish teachers, she said, wasn’t in the plans. “[Teachers for] these positions are hard to find,” said Metzgar.
But a Nov. 30 letter from Lisa Kyle, district director for Brat’s Glen Allen office, said the congressman won’t pursue further action because his office was informed the positions have been filled.
That isn’t true, according to the schools’ HR director.
Metzgar said that as of Friday an offer for Gaby’s position had been extended to one candidate—who hasn’t yet accepted. An offer was made to a candidate for Leo’s job, but the applicant declined and plans to work for a private school in Charlottesville.
“We’re still in the interview process,” said Metzgar. “We’ll make it work somehow, but we might have to bring in a long-term sub.”
Leo, stoic until now, doesn’t believe the school division did everything it could to retain them. His anger, long restrained, is beginning to show.
“I believe the choice was made,” he said.
The Legoras aren’t sure who told Brat’s office that new Spanish teachers had been hired.
According the Labor Department, American citizens taking the place of foreign workers must have the same, or higher, credentials as those workers already in place. With Leo earning $56,700 a year and Gaby earning $65,900—her salary is for 11 months and includes stipends for a master’s degree and department head—he believes the school division folded based on economics. New teachers coming in at step one this year earn about $41,900.
“We never had a fair case,” he said. “People have been asking why. I think we all want to know why.”
The Legoras have remained guarded in explaining to their two daughters, Victoria, 6, and Annie, 5, what’s happening as their home empties out, thanks to several garage sales.
“We only tell them what they need to know,” said Gaby. “We’re trying to make it as easy as we can.”
“I had to explain to Victoria why her bed was gone,” Leo said of the little girl’s white twin bed with its fanciful pink comforter. “She came running to me, asking where it went. That was hard.”
For now, they tell the children they’re going to spend more time with some family members in Chile. They don’t mention how long they’ll be gone or that Victoria won’t be returning to Yowell Elementary School, where she’s a first- grader.
Once south of the equator, they’ll need to rent a smaller house or apartment—in Santiago, houses aren’t cheap and come with little land. They’ll also have to spend about $15,000 to leave the country between four plane tickets, shipping one vehicle and some keepsakes and certifying their pets, cat Missy and golden retriever Piva, for the journey. They’ll also have to pay taxes in Chile on their incoming items.
And Leo will be a foreigner—again.
They’re also taking a trip soon to the Chilean consulate to learn if his paperwork can be done in advance. They believe paperwork for the children will be relatively easy—probably about eight months to process—and they’ll have dual citizenship.
For their father, things may not be as simple. Leo’s nervous but cautiously optimistic that he’ll get permanent status in Chile.
“There’s always a shortage of good English teachers there,” said Gaby. Still, he’s 48 and she’s 50 and they both fear ageism working against their efforts to gain employment.
The vast number of tasks to complete in just 30 days sometimes proves overwhelming. Gaby admits they didn’t get started packing or making their lists early enough because they held out for a miracle.
The stress, she said, makes her physically ill.
“It’s not impossible,” she said. “But when you make your choices, you prepare for your choices. Here, the choices were made for us.”
Gaby broke the news to her students on Wednesday. Many of them had already figured it out when they went to register for spring classes and her name wasn’t on their schedules.
“We were all crying,” she said. “I promised them they’ll get a good teacher. I tried to open my heart to the situation when it’s totally broken.”
Both Leo and Gaby want their Culpeper community to know they’re grateful for the time they’ve spent here and the relationships they’ve forged. Outside the U.S., Americans don’t always have the best reputation, said Gaby, based on stereotypes and brief encounters.
She plans to do her best to spread the word about Culpeper’s residents between the Andes Mountain and the South Pacific Ocean.
“There have been so many incredible people around us,” she said, wiping away her tears. “I’m going to tell anyone who wants to hear me how you are. Who you are.”