Immigration snafu forces Lexington community college teacher to leave U.S.

Canadian citizen James Tibbatts, has had to do some job and house searching on his computer  after his work visa for teaching was denied and he can no longer teach  on Thursday July 23, 2013 in Lexington, Ky. Photos by Mark Cornelison | Staff
Canadian citizen James Tibbatts, has had to do some job and house searching on his computer after his work visa for teaching was denied and he can no longer teach on Thursday July 23, 2013 in Lexington, Ky. Photos by Mark Cornelison | Staff Herald-Leader

Eight years ago, Canadian Jim Tibbatts received immigration status that allowed him to teach in Bluegrass Community and Technical College's automotive collision repair program.

The status, known as TN, allows citizens of Canada and Mexico to work in the United States in prearranged business activities. Tibbatts' status has been renewed five times since he was first granted it.

But when Tibbatts, 62, an assistant professor and coordinator of the BCTC Collision Repair Technology program, went to the border earlier this month to renew his TN status, his request was denied. Tibbatts said he and his wife must leave the United States by Sept. 7. They have had to sell their home, and he said they face an uncertain future in Canada.

Immigration attorneys said last week they think Tibbatts' case is an example of inconsistent decisions at the border and of a trend for tighter border controls.

"I've worked really hard," Tibbatts said. "I've tried to create careers for students. I've put my heart and soul into it.

''We're not trying to stay here permanently. We know that's against the rules."

Tibbatts said he wanted to stay at BCTC only for a few more years so he could help more students and ensure a smooth transition for whoever replaced him in the long term.

Tibbatts said he gladly paid U.S. taxes while he worked: "It was part of the privilege of living here."

The teacher took with him to the border a letter from David Hellmich, vice president of learning support and academics at BCTC, that said, in part, "Mr. Tibbatts' extensive qualifications meet and exceed the requirements for the educational standards, qualifications, licenses and credentials to teach" the associate degree program for automotive collision repair technology.

But Tibbatts said he was told at the border that his diploma in education from the University of Western Ontario, which had sufficed in the past, did not meet the criteria for TN status.

Tibbatts said the law hadn't changed since he had been getting approvals for the TN status, just the interpretations of the officials at the border.

Kris Grogan, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said he could not discuss individual cases. Federal requirements for the TN status for teachers call for a bachelor's degree and don't address the issue of equivalents.

Tibbatts said officials from BCTC and the Kentucky Community and Technical College System had been "extremely supportive" and acted quickly to try to help.

"BCTC and our automotive collision repair program students have benefitted from Jim Tibbatts' quality instruction for some eight years," BCTC President and CEO Augusta A. Julian said in a statement Thursday. "We regret to lose him. The college is working to ensure that classes will be staffed with highly qualified instructors."

Kristi Middleton, a spokeswoman for KCTCS, said she was unable to talk about an employee's specific case.

Middleton said there were "a number of factors outside of our control" that determine whether immigration status is granted and in such cases, KCTCS works with individuals to resolve issues if possible.

Community college officials could not immediately say how many teachers at BCTC or in the state community college system were working with visas or other immigration statuses.

After the denial, Tibbatts could have applied for another kind of immigration status, an H1-B, that specifically allows for the equivalent of a bachelor's degree. U.S. businesses use the H-1B program to employ foreign workers in specialty occupations that require theoretical or technical expertise in specialized fields, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website.

But Tibbatts and his wife decided not to apply for another kind of status because they had no guarantee it would be approved before they were required to leave the country.

Louisville immigration attorney Lisa Galvan said she could not talk about Tibbatts' case specifically but that H-1B applications generally can take weeks to process and that someone in his situation could not be guaranteed an answer by Aug. 21, when students return to BCTC.

Galvan said that during the past few years, there has been a trend in which decisions at the border are taking longer and requests "ultimately are being denied."

There are a lack of predictability and "inconsistencies at the border," said Leslie Holman, a Vermont lawyer who is president-elect of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

Holman said the current U.S. Customs and Border Protection administration appears to be open to working on the overall problems.

Tibbatts, however, said that after working on his problem since July 8, he decided late last week not to try to stay in the United States. He said it was a hard decision because he loved BCTC.

"It's just too much heartache," he said. "I don't have the stomach for the fight."