Religious Visa Workers Fear Program Overhaul
Some Groups Critical of Proposed Regulations Intended to Reduce Fraud

By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 13, 2007

At the Sri Siva Vishnu temple in Lanham, 11 Hindu priests recite mantras before intricately chiseled altars to deities carved by expert temple stonemasons. They offer the idols lentils and rice prepared in a small kitchen by Haridas Padithaya, 38, who looks like a line cook in his stained T-shirt but who was trained from childhood to cook for the deities by his father, who learned from his father before him.

All -- the priests, the masons, the cook -- owe their work at the temple to religious worker visas, which gave them passage from their native India to suburban Maryland jobs.

"The sustenance of the temple depends as much on the priest as on these two," said temple trustee Doddanna N. Rajashekar, referring to the cooks and masons as he stood in the temple's incense-perfumed entrance hall on a recent morning.

But proposed regulations for the religious worker visa program, which the U.S. government says is rife with fraud, have kindled fears at Sri Siva Vishnu and religious organizations nationwide that workers they depend on might be shut out. Scientologists, Mormons, Jews and other religious practitioners have united in outcry over changes that they say would be burdensome and discriminate against legitimate religious workers such as Hindu stonemasons, causing serious staff shortages and violating religious freedom.

"They looked for ways to make the use of the [visa] process completely impossible," said Charles Kuck, an Atlanta lawyer and president-elect of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "There's a hostility that's unjust even in the light of one or two fraud cases."

A spokesman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency that drafted the proposals, said officials are weighing public comments as they consider new regulations, which are expected to be finalized by the end of the year.

"It doesn't mean that we're trying to restrict occupations, denominations or anything else," spokesman Bill Wright said. "We want to make this fair across the board. That's why we want to hear from people, and we are."

The proposals come as tensions over immigration and security have prompted the government to tighten its grip on who enters the country. Meanwhile, religious organizations that increasingly serve immigrant populations cite a need to bring in workers with the spiritual, cultural and linguistic expertise to serve them.

Religious worker visas are used to bring in Catholic nuns, Hebrew teachers, Muslim imams and Baptist church administrators, among other workers. In 2006, more than 11,000 of the visas were issued, most to natives of Korea, Israel and India.

Religious organizations say no other visa category fits their workers as well, and they praise the current system for being relatively hassle-free: Religious workers get visas at U.S. consulates abroad or ports of entry. But the process might have invited fraud, immigration officials say.

A 2005 Department of Homeland Security review of 220 religious worker petitions found that nearly a third had been falsified. Some visas were issued to people who said they planned to work at nonexistent facilities, the report said. Last fall, federal immigration agents arrested 33 Pakistanis who held religious worker visas but who, in many cases, had no theological training and were working secular jobs.

The changes would require employers to file petitions in the United States before consulates could issue visas and to renew the visas more frequently. They would give notice of possible site inspections. Religious organizations say increased paperwork would make the process costly and cumbersome. Widespread site visits, rather than just to those whose applications raised red flags, would cause major delays, they say.

The loudest protests center on changes to definitions of key terms. Leading the charge are Hindu and Jain organizations, which contend that the proposed definition for religious occupation discriminates against non-Judeo-Christian traditions. The proposal lists examples such as cantors, choir directors and ritual slaughter supervisors, but not shilpis -- temple stonemasons.

Shilpis are trained for years, Hindu leaders say. They worship and invoke blessings into their tools each day and conduct ceremonies before laying stone. Expecting American Hindus to take up the profession is hopeless, Rajashekar said: Even priests in India now encourage their children to become doctors and engineers.

"It requires sacrifice," Rajashekar said.

Hindu leaders say they have strived to educate U.S. consular officials in India about the religious function of shilpis, cooks and temple architects.

Siva Subramanian, a founder of Sri Siva Vishnu, said he traveled to the consulate in Chennai in 1989 to explain why he needed religious visas for 20 shilpis. The visas were approved, and the masons came to Lanham to carve the ornate plaster pillars, deities and towers that adorn the temple. Reviewers in busy U.S. processing offices may not be so understanding, leaders say.

But complaints reach far beyond Hindu temples.

The nondenominational Bible Broadcasting Network, which transmits from Charlotte around the globe in eight languages, fears that the new definition for denomination -- which would require visa holders to work for employers "governed or administered under some form of common ecclesiastical government" -- would prompt reviewers to deny its foreign radio ministers and computer technicians, IT Manager Jeffrey Apthorp said.

Others worry about the exclusion of positions "primarily administrative in nature." The Akron, Pa.-based Mennonite Central Committee, a relief agency, prides itself on being a binational organization staffed by Canadians and Americans. Its Africa program coordinator is a Canadian with a religious worker visa.

"Is that a traditional religious function?" wondered Bruce R. McCrae, the committee's director of administration and resources. If not, he said, "that would really put a dent in our ability to be a binational organization."

The Los Angeles-based Church of Scientology Western United States, which brings in ministers to work with non-English-speaking parishioners, has also weighed in. The proposed requirement that ministers be "fully trained" is biased toward Christianity, assistant secretary Kenneth Long wrote in public comments to the immigration service.

"Scientology religious teachings and counseling are arranged in a gradient fashion, proceeding from relatively simple and straightforward truths to ever higher and more complex heights of spiritual understanding and awareness," Long wrote. "Scientology ministers and ministers-in-training never cease in their study of Scientology scriptures."

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints says the changes would end outright its sponsorship each year of about 1,500 volunteers for two-year missions. Although the proposal cites missionary work as a religious occupation, it requires that those holding religious occupations be paid. Nor would missionary work qualify as a religious vocation, which requires a "formal, lifetime commitment," church lawyers wrote in public comments.

The proposed regulations say that allowing those kinds of volunteer jobs to qualify for religious worker visas "opens the door to an unacceptable amount of fraud."

In Lanham, Rajashekar worries when he looks up to the temple's ceiling. The panels are dotted with rust-colored spots and streaks, stains from where cracks in the towers have let in rain. The resident shilpi can fix leaks for now. But if he leaves someday, the temple will need another person schooled in temple masonry, Rajashekar said.

"If something breaks down," he said, "even an Indian mason cannot do this work."

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