When Toll Middle School teacher Maria Capdevilla had to take an extended leave from her classroom, her students began to chatter: Had she been deported? Would she ever return? What could they do to help?
“Middle school can be like a bad game of telephone,” said Thomas Crowther, principal of Toll, where Capdevilla has been teaching in its dual-immersion Spanish program the past six years.
Catching wind of the gossip, Crowther clarified some of the rumors — Capdevilla, a Spain-born legal resident, had not been deported.
She was taking an indefinite absence while she awaited the renewal of her work permit, he told them.
Some students teared up at the news that it wasn’t clear when their teacher would return.
Wanting to help out, Capdevilla’s students decided to write a petition to federal government officials, asking them to expedite approval of her permit.
A few days later, the students had a typed cover letter and pages of signatures that far outnumbered the 130 students she personally teaches.
“I think it was the most positive thing that came out of all of this — that the kids saw a reason to get involved,” Capdevilla said. “It was certainly very touching and special for me.”
Born in the medieval town of Toledo, Capdevilla studied English and taught in her native country before she was recruited by the Glendale Unified School District through an exchange program co-run by the Spanish Ministry of Education and the California Department of Education.
“I was told to come here,” she said.
By the time the student petition was circulating in mid-January, Capdevilla’s permit had been languishing in the approval process for around four months — longer than the expected processing time outlined by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
She said she was told it would take three months when she filed for the renewal.
The federal agency does not allow applications for employment authorization documents like the one Capdevilla was renewing to be submitted more than 180 days in advance, according to Irvine-based immigration attorney Mitch Wexler.
“Almost in every case people fall out of status,” Wexler said. “It’s a gaping hole.”
Processing times have been steadily increasing since 2012, as application and petition requests continue to rise and outpace the capacity of the agency, according to USCIS Los Angeles-based agency spokesperson Claire Nicholson.
Wexler said the delays spiked significantly about six months ago and haven’t abated.
According to Capdevilla, the two other times she renewed her permit, it took about a month for approval.
Eric Sustad, an immigration attorney based in Washington D.C., agreed that three to four weeks for Capdevilla’s case was “more typical.”
He also noted that application processing times have slowed down in the past year or so.
USCIS “hasn’t issued any policy statements or any clarification of what the reason for these lengthy times is, but it’s consistent with a lot of chaos and understaffing,” Sustad said.
Immigration officials are claiming they’re under-resourced and overworked, and that “things are crazy at USCIS,” Wexler said.
“We’re working really hard at moving resources around and reviewing how we can better utilize our resources to make sure we’re getting those backlogs and processing times in check,” said Nicholson.
She added that the agency is looking into implementing new technology and moving cases to different offices to increase efficiency.
Once an employee’s work permit expires, employers have to send them home, let them go or risk facing sanctions, Wexler said. To keep them on would violate federal immigration law.
When the government falls outside its expected application processing time guidelines, “there’s no consequence,” according to Wexler.
The only recourse he could think of for someone who lost a job or wages as a result of processing delays would be to sue the government, which neither Wexler nor Sustad have never done.
When Capdevilla’s permit expired on Dec. 5, she had to leave her classroom but not her position. She was put on leave while Toll sought a substitute.
Because Capdevilla teaches a high-level Spanish biliteracy course as part of the school’s dual-immersion program, it was difficult to find a long-term replacement, Crowther said.
At the time, there were only three single-subject Spanish credential holders in the substitute pool, and none of them could necessarily commit to open-ended but potentially long-term availability, he said.
Eventually, a substitute was brought on, and Capdevilla served as an adviser.
Meanwhile, officials at Toll and district officials wrote letters to USCIS explaining that Capdevilla’s absence from the classroom was affecting her students and their families, as well as her own family, and asked for a case reevaluation.
When she received the student-created petition, she sent it along to the agency as well.
Agency officials acknowledged that her case was “intriguing” but not grounds for expedition, Crowther said.
Then, with no explanation for the delay, Capdevilla received notice on Feb. 5 that her work permit was approved.
Working out to a processing time of 137 days, the application was within the 180-day maximum time outlined by the government, but outside the projected three months.
Sustad called the over four-month timeframe “ridiculous.”
Following the news, a class party was held and Capdevilla picked up her six daily classes where they left off.
It’s good to be back, she said, but she’s had to come up with a “catch-up plan” to ensure her eighth-grade students are prepared for an upcoming annual standardized test designed to gauge Spanish-language proficiency.
With her two children, Pedro and Candela, attending Mark Keppel Elementary School, which is next to Toll, Capdevilla said she and her family plan to stay in Glendale for at least a few more years.
“We are very happy here,” she said.
While politics are not discussed in the classroom, Capdevilla said students are independently aware of the intensified national conversation concerning legal and illegal immigration.
As a result, they made their own connections, erroneous or not, with her recent predicament.
Crowther said as one of the leaders of a public school, he’s cautious about making his politics known.
Without assigning blame to a particular political party, he said he was mostly frustrated that “130 kids were held hostage by this process.”
The delay “has an impact on a lot of people, not just that one person waiting for the paperwork to process,” he said.
Lila Seidman is a contributor to Times Community News.