WASHINGTON (July 14, 2000) -- Proposed changes to a visa program used by the Church to bring foreign religious workers to the United States on a temporary basis would undercut the value and usefulness of the program, according to the Chairman of the Bishops' Migration Committee.
Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Camden (NJ) today submitted testimony for the record, rebutting proposals to change the program made at a June 29 hearing of the U.S. House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Claims.
"We would like to respond to some of those suggestions and explain how they would adversely impact the purpose of the program and undercut the personnel needs and mission of many of our dioceses and religious orders," Bishop DiMarzio said.
In 1990, Congress recognized the special needs of religious denominations and their organizations and established the Non-minister Special Immigrant Religious Worker Visa Program on a temporary basis. It has been renewed twice, and the U.S. Catholic Conference, the public policy agency of the Catholic Bishops in the United States, has urged making the program permanent. Cardinal Adam Maida of Detroit testified before the Senate Immigration Subcommittee in April.
Bishop DiMarzio, in the remarks he submitted today, responded to four specific proposals to change the program:
- The definition of religious occupation. "Both the State Department and the Immigration and Naturalization Service suggest in their testimony that 'religious occupation' be more narrowly defined in the law ... We find this suggestion unnecessary and fraught with difficulty," Bishop DiMarzio said. He said it is problematic to impose a legal definition on a traditional religious function which does not fall neatly into a secular employment category. Likewise, trying to define religious occupations across denominations is difficult. He also cautioned against problems of defining "religious occupation" versus "religious vocation."
- Previous occupational experience. "Recommendations that ... workers demonstrate full-time previous work experience in the vocation or occupation in which they intend to work would present obstacles to many religious organizations and denominations who sponsor religious workers," Bishop DiMarzio said. He cited the case of religious orders who bring "novices," individuals just beginning their association with the order, to the United States as part of their training. He also noted the example of members of religious orders who perform tasks as needed in various fields, or lay workers who work several part-time positions in different parishes and thereby wouldn't meet the proposed full-time work experience requirement.
- Residency in home country for nonimmigrants. "Members of religious orders often
live in community with other members and are transferred periodically from one nation to another to perform service, and thus do not maintain a residence," Bishop Di Marzio said. He said a residency requirement, as proposed by the State Department and INS, "would place impossible burdens on some religious workers."
- Post-arrival work requirements and compensation. Referring again to the example of a religious sister or brother whose duties may change from time to time depending on the sponsoring religious order's needs, Bishop DiMarzio said a proposed requirement that a foreign religious worker work full time in a given occupation could be problematic. Similarly, a requirement that the worker be compensated accordingly for full-time work would be counter to religious orders, like Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity, which do not compensate their members but rather provide them with basic necessities. "A full-time compensation requirement would preclude many religious orders from sponsoring sisters or other religious into the United States to perform vitally important work," Bishop DiMarzio said.