Walking With Migrants

The Country’s Need for Foreign-Born Religious Workers Is Vital for the Church

The U.S. immigration system should meet the needs of our communities and nation, but it often fails to do so.

One issue that greatly affects the Catholic Church in the United States and many other religious and nonprofit organizations is the special provision in the law for religious workers. Prior to the passage of the Immigration Act of 1990, there were no discrete visas for religious workers who were not ministers.

Thus, the Church viewed the Immigration Act of 1990 as an important step forward in its ability to bring foreign-born religious workers, including priests, into the country. It has long depended on these workers to meet the needs of immigrant communities.

After the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, this need significantly increased, as many more foreign-born Catholics arrived, but there were not sufficient priests and religious who could speak their languages and who understood their cultures. Adding to this need has been the lack of vocations in the United States.

The religious workers came not only to serve their co-nationals but to meet the broader needs of the Church. They are truly essential workers, and their work benefits Church organizations that serve the public. Some provide pastoral services and others related social services. The R-1 Religious Worker Visa allows qualified persons to come for an initial period of two and a half years, which is renewable for another two and a half more years. But the system that once worked is now burdened with many problems.

Religious workers seeking permanent resident status are facing unprecedented administrative delays.

The processing times for the immigration forms required have gotten beyond reasonable time frames. For example, a form that allows a person to stay as a resident after the R-1 Visa expires would take more than two years to process. As a result, many religious workers and their sponsors face the difficult situation of whether the worker should leave the United States or should remain and risk falling into unlawful status as their cases are processed, jeopardizing their eligibility to become permanent residents.

There is also a negative impact on the people and communities these religious workers serve if they leave. It is clear that an overhaul of the system is necessary.

A related problem is the excessive fees charged for processing these applications. Because of the long processing times, most applicants try to use premium processing, which costs $1,500, besides the normal processing fees for applications. However, this extra fee does not ensure a smooth process, as adjudicators frequently request additional evidence and reject applications at high rates. There is also a requirement for site visits to our ministries, which are difficult to schedule. As a result, religious visas take an excessive time to process, compared to other employment-based visas.

In addition, once religious workers arrive, it takes months for the government to provide them with employment authorization, which hampers their ability to work, obtain a driver’s license, and otherwise function in the United States.

This issue is worthy of our advocacy since it affects many dioceses and religious orders, and deprives our foreign-born parishioners and many others of pastoral and social services.

A full explanation of these problems in the religious worker immigration program can be obtained from Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. (CLINIC) in a policy brief “The Human Consequences of USCIS Policies and Backlogs on Religious Workers and the Communities they Serve.” CLINIC is a powerful advocate for religious workers, providing both legal representation in individual matters and supporting our dioceses and religious communities in this difficult part of immigration law.

Bishop DiMarzio retired on Nov. 30 and is continuing his research on undocumented migration in the United States.