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.
“We 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?”
Individuals 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 hospital.
Bill 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 employer.
Nevertheless, 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.
Under 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)