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Heretic on the Hill: Visas for Religious Workers — Who Thought This Was A Good Idea?

What if you could start your own religion, get it sanctioned by the IRS, and bring some of your believers from overseas to work at your faith-based nonprofit? Well you can! There is a special visa program known as the R-1 Nonimmigrant Religious Workers Program.  “Noncitizens working in the United States temporarily as a minister or in a religious vocation or occupation are eligible for the nonimmigrant religious worker (R-1) classification,” according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS).


First, you need a religion. One that has international appeal so that you will have followers you can bring here. What if Star Wars is your favorite movie, and the teachings of the Jedi Knights changed your life? Good enough. You can start a Jedi religion. Actually this idea is just for demonstration purposes because someone already did this: The Temple of the Jedi Order. 


Next step: USCIS requires that any participating religion already be declared a tax-exempt nonprofit by the IRS. If you think this is a difficult or selective process, think again. The Temple of the Jedi Order was awarded its tax exempt status in 2015 according to this article which describes several other tax-exempt “religions” that don’t seem very religious. Churches, in fact, have a much easier path to nonprofit status from the IRS than all other nonprofits. “They are automatically granted a tax-exempt status while secular charities have to fill out paperwork to earn the designation and they don’t have to fill out the IRS Form 990 annually,” says Hemant Mehta in OnlySky here


Now you fill out the petition to bring “a noncitizen seeking to enter the United States as a nonimmigrant minister, or a religious worker in a religious vocation or occupation.” There are a few requirements in the process, but not many. Once here, the non-immigrant worker must work at least 20 hours a week. They can only stay two years. And the work at the faith based nonprofit is very loosely defined. 


Now the questions: Is this program really necessary? Does the labyrinthine immigration system really need a carve-out for ministers and religious workers? Wouldn’t more scientists be better? Or doctors? I just read that there’s a shortage of long-term-care workers now. And isn’t a program as flimsy as this likely to be riddled with fraud? There we have an answer! Significant fraud discovered in 2005 led to improvements including optional USCIS inspections of the facilities involved prior to approval. Did that stop the fraud? Not according to this. Just one “religion” applied for at least 3,447 visas over seven years according to a Freedom of Information Act request. Anecdotally many of the participants ended up in janitorial or clerical jobs. 


I’ve met with staff on the Senate Judiciary Committee which oversees immigration issues and legislation. They are interested in looking at the need for changes in the nonimmigrant religious worker program and addressing the obvious fraud going on. I am waiting for data from USCIS so we can determine the extent of the problem and appropriate reforms. And to be clear, there is no evidence at all that the Jedi Temple is involved in the religious visa program. I just used them as an example of the generosity at the IRS. I’m sure they are nice people, dedicated to intergalactic peace. May The Force be with them.


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