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Visa Delays Restrict Supply of Church Workers
BY TOM McFEELYCONTRIBUTING EDITOR
WASHINGTON — Religious immigrant
workers are a key resource for the Church in the United States, particularly in
terms of ministering to America’s fast-growing Hispanic Catholic population.
But now that the federal government
has introduced more stringent procedures for obtaining religious workers’
visas, that resource is becoming much tougher to access, with waits of close to
a year for approval of some applications.
certainly do have a need for individuals to work in hospitals, as chaplains or
as nurses, to teach in schools, to do parish ministry among individuals from
their home countries,” said Sister Margaret Perron, a Religious of Jesus and
Mary sister and the director of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc.’s Division of Religious Immigration Services. “We need folks that speak Spanish, to be able to
provide catechesis and spiritual guidance and support spiritually for the large
numbers of Spanish speakers that comprise the Catholic Church these days. Who’s
going to minister to them?”
seeking to enter the United States to work for a religious employer can apply
for temporary religious worker visas, which allow them to work for up to five
years in the United States, or they can apply for permanent resident visas.
Those eligible for the visas fall
into three classifications: clergy, members of religious communities, and lay
individuals who are going to work for a church organization or a religious
non-profit organization, such as a religious radio station or a Catholic
Wright, spokesman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS) said
between 10,000 and 11,000 religious worker visas are approved each year, about
half for temporary workers.
Applicants for the visas must supply
proof of their religious affiliation and of their qualifications for the
position they are seeking, as well as documentation from the sponsoring
immigration officials have been skeptical for years about the legitimacy of
many of those who obtain religious workers’ visas. And their doubts were
intensified following an audit of the program by the Homeland Security Office
of Fraud Detection for National Security in July 2006. The audit found that 33%
of 240 randomly selected applications surveyed were fraudulent.
Following the audit, immigration
officials began to scrutinize applications more closely, resulting in delays in
processing. And in late April, CIS released specific proposals for more
stringent processing of all applications.
the proposed regulations, prospective employers will be required to pre-apply
to Citizenship and Immigration Services before an individual can file an
application for a visa. Employers also will be required to prove they have been
granted tax-exempt religious non-profit status by the IRS, and on-site
inspections of employers will be conducted more frequently.
Immigration lawyers anticipate even
longer delays if the proposed rules come into effect.
“I would say that religious
organizations ought to consider six months to a year as lead time for one of
these cases,” said Joel Pfeffer, a Philadelphia attorney who is a member of the
American Immigration Lawyers Association’s committee on religious workers.
The changes will have a significant
effect on Catholic employers, even though sources who spoke to the Register on
condition of anonymity said that little of the fraud that was uncovered by the
federal audit involved Catholic religious workers.
That’s likely because the Church,
unlike many other religious denominations, has a well-organized official
structure that can attest to the legitimacy of Catholic applicants.
“I don’t get the sense that it’s a
Catholic problem per se, the issue of fraud and misuse,” said Carlos Ortiz
Miranda, associate general counsel for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“But as an executive agency they
have to treat all religious denominations the same, so when they perceive a
problem then they use their blunt instrument of administrative practice,” said
Ortiz, who is the chairman of the American Immigration Lawyers Association’s
committee on religious workers.
Ortiz said that immigration lawyers
with large caseloads of Catholic clients have organized a working group to
communicate their concerns to federal officials. Now that the proposed new
regulations have been published, Citizenship and Immigration Services will
accept comments from concerned parties until June 25 and decide after reviewing
them whether to implement the changes.
If the changes are implemented,
Sister Margaret is not optimistic about the prospects for Catholic employers
being able to fill job vacancies within a reasonable period of time.
“It’s going to bring everybody
almost to a halt,” she predicted. “I can’t imagine religious denominations
being able to fill their needs, and especially the Catholic Church.”
Tom McFeely is based in
Vancouver, British Columbia.
(CNS contributed to this report)