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New Restrictions on Religious Workers Draw Fire From Faith-Based Groups

An effort by the Bush administration to tighten regulation of a special visa program for religious workers is drawing fire from a variety of faith-based groups, who argue that the move could amount to a violation of religious freedom.

In April, after reports of widespread fraud in its “temporary religious workers” visa program, the Department of Homeland Security issued provisional regulations that would require employers to provide comprehensive documentation in support of their requests. The streamlining of the program, which previously required a more limited set of documents and received little scrutiny, is part of a broader tightening of the country’s entry rules.

With the regulations scheduled to go into effect toward the end of this year, Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Hindu groups alike are warning that they will face staff shortages as a result.

“The new rules make it very difficult for legitimate religious organizations to use this program,” said Melanie Nezer, the immigration policy counsel at the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. “I understand the concern about fraud, but there are other ways to deal with this.”

A 2005 review by the Department of Homeland Security of 220 religious-worker visa petitions found that nearly a third had been fraudulent. Last year, federal immigration agents arrested 33 Pakistanis with religious-worker visas, who for the most part had no theological training and held regular jobs. Homeland Security officials say that the fraud rate could pose a threat to the security of the United States, and that the new regulations are aimed at addressing this loophole.

While adminsitration officials insist that the measures are not directed against any particular religion, some Muslim groups are concerned about potential discrimination, especially given widespread reports about the radical teachings of some Middle Eastern imams in the West.

“Discrimination is part of our concern about those new rules, because we fear there will be a higher level of scrutiny when it comes to Muslim religious workers,” said Laila Al-Qatmi, chief spokesperson for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. “So we want to know what criteria will be used.” The committee is holding regular meetings with the Department of Homeland Security to discuss immigration issues.

American Jewish organizations, for their part, are worried that the rule changes could prevent hundreds of Jews from coming to the United States to fill positions in kosher slaughterhouses and in Jewish schools.

In 2006, more than 11,000 religious-worker visas were issued, mostly to natives of Korea, Israel and India. Before the new proposals were made this past spring, foreigners could apply for the visas themselves by simply showing up at an American consulate with a few documents describing their position, their would-be employer in the United States and their history of adherence to the faith.

Under the new regulations, all applications will have to be filed by the employer and thoroughly reviewed by the American government. The maximum length of the work visa will be cut from five years to three, and government agents will conduct random visits to the employing institutions.

The result, advocates warn, is that a relatively hassle-free and low-cost program will become too complex and onerous for religious institutions. Moreover, they argue, even though the new rules are not yet in place, they are already having a chilling effect on the program.

Nezer said she had seen requests for documents that some Jewish employers simply could not meet. She cited as an example the need for approval by a religious “governing body” for the hiring of Hebrew school teachers, when in many cases no such bodies exist.

A coalition of religious groups recently sent a letter to the Bush administration protesting the new regulations.

“It is a vital goal for [the Department of Homeland Security’s Citizenship and Immigration Services] to protect against fraud and deception,” the letter read. “Yet we urge USCIS not to make changes that would seriously undermine the original purpose of the program…. Regulations that would preclude our organizations from bringing foreign religious workers to our communities — particularly those that are small and remote — would effectively amount to interference with the free exercise of religion.”

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