Visa Issues Lead to a Shortage of Religious Staffers

By Nathan Guttman

Published November 11, 2009, issue of November 20, 2009.
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A pathway used by many Jewish institutions to bring foreign religious and educational workers into the United States is tightening due to increased scrutiny from immigration authorities.

The temporary work visas for the religious professionals program — which many Jewish institutions use to gain work permits for rabbis, ritual slaughterers and teachers — now requires a lengthy process and close inspection of the institute sponsoring the foreign worker. Immigration authorities implemented the heightened level of scrutiny in response to reports of widespread fraud in use of these visas.

The result is a looming shortage in religious workers.

“A visa that was once relatively inexpensive and fast is now subject to a longer application period and additional fees,” said Shanni Alexandrovitz, an immigration attorney who has worked on many cases in which religious workers sought visas for positions in the United States.

Procedures for obtaining a temporary religious worker visa (known as R-1) were changed a year ago, following a 2005 report by the Government Accountability Office that found the visa program was susceptible to fraud and recommended tightening procedures to avoid misuse.

The new regulations require a two-phase process: First, filing a petition with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and then, upon approval, having the potential worker undergo an interview at an American embassy overseas. USCIS agents must conduct an on-site survey of the religious institution petitioning for the worker and also examine its tax records.

The increased scrutiny has translated into longer processing time and higher legal fees.

Josh Wolff, who formerly served as executive vice president for a large Jewish day school, said that he had encountered cases in which teachers had to wait more than a year before obtaining visas. “Every day that the issue was not resolved,” Wolff said, put the school in “a positive but certain tension” between understanding the government’s need to act and the need to support the school faculty and provide education to its students. In one case, he said, the school “used every resource possible to make calls, contact congressmen, and expedite the return of a wonderful teacher to his classroom.”

David Grunblatt, a New York immigration attorney who represented many Jewish organizations petitioning for foreign workers, said that while the Jewish community is developing the capability to deal with the complexities of the issue, there is a significant procedural difference between the old policy and the new one. “I expect it will create a shortage, because the community’s needs are very specific, and it is difficult to find the right person for the job,” Grunblatt said. He said that the new policy could make it difficult to fill positions in small or remote Jewish communities, jobs American graduates of rabbinical schools are often unwilling to take.

The use of temporary work visas for religious workers has been on the rise in the past decade. From 12,000 approvals in 1999, the number of such visas issued grew to 25,000 in recent years. The government does not provide a breakdown of visa recipients according to their denomination, but attorneys involved in the process estimated that several hundred visas a year go to Jewish institutions.

Setting new regulations for the issuance of work permits for religious workers had the federal government walking a tightrope. On the one hand, there was the need to make sure that the program is not misused. On the other hand, it was also important to steer clear of being seen as trying to regulate religion or meddle in the internal affairs of faith groups.

This dilemma was demonstrated recently, when a June 11 report produced by the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general recommended that the USCIS “create or revise, and disseminate to the public, examples of legitimate religious work and specific religious occupations that meet regulatory definitions.” Immigration authorities, who argued for the need to allow religious denominations to decide for themselves what constitutes a “religious occupation,” turned down the recommendation.

With definitions of workers eligible for a visa under the religious worker program remaining murky, authorities have been applying extra scrutiny to requests. One immigration attorney, who requested anonymity, pointed to the case of a music teacher who was sponsored for work by a Jewish school. The school was required to answer a lengthy series of questions in order to establish the religious aspect of music teaching and only after proving that the teacher would be instructing students in chanting prayers was the petition approved.

Another front on which Jewish groups are fighting to ease immigration restrictions is that of the special religious workers immigration visa. This program, established 20 years ago, provides immigration permits to up to 5,000 religious workers a year and to an unlimited number of workers in ministerial positions. The non-ministerial part of the program includes a sunset clause that requires Congress to extend it every three years. President Obama signed the extension of the program on October 28, three days before it was set to expire.

Jewish groups, joined by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Mormon church, lobbied Congress to re-issue the program for three more years. Abba Cohen, Washington director and counsel for Agudath Israel of America, who was among those leading the lobbying effort, said that the program carried specific importance for the Jewish community. “It is not easy bringing rabbis, cantors and teachers to distant areas,” he said, adding that there is also a need for foreign workers in big cities, where some immigrant communities, such as the Russian and Iranian Jews, require religious workers with specific language skills. Cohen also pointed to the Jewish community’s need for ritual slaughterers for meat-processing facilities that are usually located in remote areas.

“It is a matter of religious freedom,” said Melanie Nezer, senior director of U.S. programs and advocacy at the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. “The government should allow religious group to hire whoever they need.”

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com






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