Visa program allowing religious workers to apply for US residency wins last-minute reprieve

Editor's note: This story originally ran under the headline "Visa program allowing US religious workers to apply for US residency set to expire" and was updated September 29 to reflect the latest Congressional action.

The visa program that allows foreign religious workers, including women religious, to apply for permanent residency in the United States has won a last-minute reprieve.

The special immigrant non-minister religious worker visa was set to expire Sept. 30 unless Congress acted to renew the program. A continuing resolution — a bill which keeps current government programs and spending in place in lieu of a budget — was approved late Wednesday night (September 28). President Obama is expected to sign it into law today.

The non-minister religious worker visa allows religious workers who are not priests or pastors to stay here for the years or decades needed for formation or on long-term assignment. In contrast, a temporary visa is limited to a five-year maximum.

If the program had expired, any religious community or church that invites foreign religious workers to the United States for more than five years would not be able to do so if those visas were not approved before Oct. 1.

Miguel A. Naranjo, the director of Religious Immigration Services at Catholic Legal Immigration Network (CLINIC), said Congress typically races the deadline to renew the program, which can cause worry for those who depend on it.

"Every two or three years when it comes up for renewal, there's a last-minute reprieve," Naranjo said. "Either it's passed as an amendment to a larger bill or passed on its own, but it's always at the last minute."

The visa program for priests and pastors has no expiration date, but the program for non-ministers does, typically in two or three years. Last year, however, the program was renewed for only one year, so now Congress must approve it again before the start of the new fiscal year on Oct. 1.

The expiration is only for the program of granting visas. The visas themselves would not be affected.

"We work with a lot of organizations that want to sponsor religious brothers and sisters and other lay workers," Naranjo said. "Certainly, they fill a gap that's desperately needed. On its face, it's a beneficial program."

So why not make the program permanent rather than having to renew it every so often?

Bob Sakaniwa, associate director for advocacy at the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said it is simply political fear of the controversy surrounding immigration.

"There have been efforts to make it a permanent program, but I think the problem is immigration in general is such a problem area, it's not easy to do," Sakaniwa said. "Because these programs aren't controversial themselves, they don't get turned into a political football entirely, but they do suffer from these sunset dates."

And those sunset dates make those who need a permanent visa suffer, as well.

"It creates a lot of anxiety and handwringing for anybody in the middle of this process, but unfortunately, that's Congress' way of dealing with it," he said.

Sakaniwa said the program was not explicitly continued last year but was extended by the omnibus bill Congress passed in December to keep the government running for another year. Wednesday’s move (September 28) extended the program until December 9 by a continuing resolution, which will keep the federal government running in the new fiscal year even though Congress has not yet passed a budget.

Sakaniwa had expected the continuing resolution's approval, but but it was delayed by last-minute negotiations between Republicans and Democrats over spending to help flood victims in Louisiana and to deal with the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, where toxic levels of lead in the water supply will cost hundreds of millions of dollars to fix.For 2016, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras each used up the total number of  visas allowed under all programs by April, and Mexico and India hit their caps in July and August, respectively, so they cannot get more for religious workers or any other classification.

The U.S. State Department said in its October Visa Bulletin that the limits for El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras for the next fiscal year will be reached by applications filed in previous years that have not yet been processed, so no more visas will be approved for those countries.

Global Sisters Report contacted three congregations of women religious — the Benedictine Sisters of Chicago; the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ in Donaldson, Indiana; and the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary of Monroe, Michigan — to see if they would be affected if Congress failed to extend the program. All said they would not.

The law limits the number of non-minister religious workers visas that can be issued to 5,000 per year worldwide but usually issues less than half that number.

[Dan Stockman is national correspondent for Global Sisters Report. His email address is dstockman@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.]

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