The Non-Minister Religious Worker Visa Program (RWVP) allows religious organizations in the United States to sponsor non-minister religious workers from abroad, such as nuns, religious brothers and lay missionaries. The program was created by the Immigration Act of 1990. Its chief sponsors at the time were Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA).
The program consists of two parts. The first provides for a fixed number of Special Immigrant visas per year which religious organizations can use to sponsor foreign nationals to perform religious service in the United States. Once granted, this type of visa allows religious workers to immigrate permanently to the United States and eventually become U.S. citizens. The program is set to expire on September 30, 2008.
The second part of the program allows religious organizations to sponsor temporary nonimmigrant religious workers to perform religious service in the United States for a maximum of five years. Unlike the Special Immigrant provisions, the nonimmigrant provision is permanent and has no expiration date.
On April 15, 2008, the House of Representatives passed a conditional extension of the Special Immigrant Non-Minister Religious Worker Visa Program (H.R.5570). H.R. 5570 would extend the program for 15 months through January 2010 and provide a conditional seven-year extension of the program provided that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issues regulations to eliminate or reduce fraud in the program by January 1, 2010. The bill would also require that the DHS regulations be promulgated by December 31, 2008. Finally, the bill would commission a Congressional study of the regulations’ effectiveness in reducing such fraud.
Originally, the DHS anti-fraud regulation was issued as a proposed rule on April 25, 2007 by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). The proposed rule outlined potential changes to the religious worker visa classifications (72 Fed.Reg. 20442). In so doing, USCIS made it clear that its goal was to eradicate fraud in the RWVP. However, the proposed rule contains several points of concern for the Catholic Church.
First, the proposed rule would change the existing definition of “religious occupation” to require that the occupation is salaried. This would pose a problem for many Catholic occupations, such as seminarians and Catholic volunteer workers, who may labor without compensation or with compensation such as room and board that comes from a group fund rather than flowing directly to an individual.
Second, the proposed rule would alter the definition of “religious vocation” to mandate that the vocation is a “formal lifetime commitment to a religious way of life.” Such a definition does not neatly apply to Catholicism, which makes no distinction vocationally between those who have taken temporary vows and those who have taken permanent vows. Also, members of newly formed religious orders may not meet the definition because these orders have not yet been approved by the Vatican.
Third, the proposed rule would change the standard period of stay for the R-1 visa category to an initial one-year period with two potential extensions of two years each, for a total of five years (at present, the initial period of stay can be authorized for three years, with one potential extension of two years, for a total 5-year period of stay).
Fourth, the proposed rule would require that those who wish to obtain religious worker status to first achieve two years of full-time, compensated vocational work. Under USCIS’s view, seminarians are not engaged in “full-time, compensated vocational work”. Thus, although the Catholic Church views seminarians as carrying out their religious vocation in a full-time capacity, USCIS would not allow seminarians to count their seminary time toward the two-year requirement.
Fifth, the proposed rule may pose administrative challenges to religious organizations, such as requiring them to file attestation documents verifying the nature of religious worker’s proposed duties; successfully undergo on-site inspections to ensure the integrity of their programs; and file IRS letters confirming their tax-exempt status.
Catholic Social Teaching
The Catholic Church in the United States has a long history of providing social services through its diverse ministries, following Our Lord's calling, "I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you made me welcome; naked and you clothed me; sick and you visited me; in prison and you came to see me" (Matthew 25:35-40). Through dioceses and religious orders, ministries often follow this call with the help of foreign-born sisters, brothers and missionaries. The Catholic Church is a universal church and often has members of religious orders in more than one country. Those members are sometimes called to serve in countries other than their own, such as the United States.
The U.S. Catholic Bishops support amending the religious worker program to eliminate the practice of bringing individuals to the United States under fraudulent circumstances. However, the Bishops urge USCIS to make the necessary alterations to its proposed rule so that the religious denominations such as the Catholic Church may continue to efficiently bring talented and devoted religious workers to the United States. The Church’s ability to both attract and maintain valuable foreign religious workers can be greatly aided or hindered by USCIS’s requirements.