Thomas E. Cook
Acting Assistant Commissioner
Immigration & Naturalization Service
House Judiciary Committee
Subcommittee on Immigration and Claims
Evaluating the Religious Worker Visa Programs
June 29, 2000
B-352 Rayburn House Office Building
Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to appear before you today to present the views of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) concerning the special immigrant religious worker provisions in section 101(a)(27)(C) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). I am Thomas Cook, Acting Assistant Commissioner for Adjudications for the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).
There are three categories of special immigrant religious workers contained in the INA. Subclauses (II) and (III) of section 101(a)(27)(C)(ii) of the INA provide for the admission as "special immigrants" of up to 5,000 aliens per year who: (1) for at least two years preceding the time of application have been members of a religious denomination having a bona fide nonprofit, religious organization in the United States; (2) seek to enter the United States in order to work for the organization, or for an affiliated tax-exempt organization, in a religious vocation or occupation; and (3) have been carrying on religious work continuously for at least two years immediately preceding their application for admission. These provisions, which were originally enacted in 1990 and have been extended twice, have a current sunset date of September 30, 2000. This sunset date however, does not apply to the continuing permanent definition of "special immigrants" covered by subclause (1) which include those individuals who enter solely for the purpose of carrying on the vocation of a minister of a religious denomination.
In my testimony today I would like to address the program and the findings contained in the General Accounting Office's (GAO) March 1999 Report GAO/NSIAD-99-67, "Visa Issuance: Issues Concerning the Religious Worker Visa Program" (the "GAO report").
The religious worker program provides an important resource for U.S. religious denominations struggling with shortages of domestic religious workers. The benefits of this program to religious organizations have been documented, for example by the April 13 testimony of several religious leaders before the Subcommittee on Immigration of the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary. The INS supports legislation to continue this program.
We are concerned, however, by the problems described in the GAO report involving program fraud. We believe reasonable modifications to the program will provide substantial assistance to us in administering it, without limiting the ability of bona fide religious organizations to obtain the workers they need. Indeed, by enhancing our ability to detect and deter fraudulent applications in which there is no genuine purpose to engage in religious work, these changes will benefit bona fide religious denominations with a genuine need for qualified religious workers by ensuring that the limited number of available religious worker visas actually are used to fill this important need.
As described in the GAO report, the fraud uncovered by the INS or the Department of State (DOS) typically involved applicants making false statements about their qualifications as religious workers or their exact plans in the United States, or a conspiracy between an applicant and a sponsoring organization to misrepresent material facts about the applicant's qualifications or the nature of the position to be filled. The GAO report does not firmly quantify the extent of fraud in the religious worker visa program.
As described in the GAO report, the INS and DOS have detected fraudulent schemes when a sponsoring organization has petitioned the INS for hundreds of religious workers at a time. For example, in 1995 the INS investigated a pastor who filed 450 immigrant religious worker petitions covering over 900 individuals, falsifying the number of years the aliens had been members of the church. In another case, consular officers at the U.S. embassy in Suva, Fiji, became suspicious of a church that filed petitions on behalf of 30 individuals from Fiji who were in the United States on expired visitors' visas. Upon investigation, only 1 of the 30 petitions met the requirements for a religious worker visa.
The religious worker program was intended to provide religious organizations with a means of obtaining the services of workers they need. It was not intended to provide a vehicle for fraud. It was not intended to provide religious denominations with the ability to obtain green cards for members of their congregation, particularly on a "revolving door" basis, without a bona fide intention to employ them for religious work (we note that according to the GAO Report, about 85 percent of those admitted for permanent residence through the religious worker program in fiscal years 1996 and 1997 were already in the United States). We are certainly not suggesting that a bona fide petition for a worker already in the United States is improper, or that the majority of applicants are abusing the program. On the contrary, it clearly provides important benefits for many religious organizations and religious workers. We need to find ways of ensuring that these benefits fully continue, while deterring improper practices that hurt bona fide users among others.
We look forward to working with the Committee to make sure the parameters of the program are clear. First, that the required two years of qualifying religious work preceding the date of application be full-time, compensated work for all three categories of religious workers. Since many members of religious denominations typically perform various types of part-time volunteer service to the religious organization, the distinction between membership, and performing the religious vocation or occupation, is not otherwise meaningful. Without this clarification, the distinction is lost between the two-year denomination membership requirement of section 101(a)(27)(C)(i) and the two-year requirement of carrying on a religious vocation or religious work of 101(a)(27)(C)(iii). Everyone with two years membership in a denomination could potentially be eligible to apply for a special immigrant religious worker visa, including those members who are only casually participating in religious work on an extremely limited basis, and who are the least likely actually to continue in religious duties after obtaining lawful permanent residence in the United States. Problematic cases that the INS has encountered have in particular been those in which the two years of experience in the religious vocation or occupation has not been full-time experience.
The second important parameter for all three categories of religious workers is that the alien seek to enter the United States to work for the qualifying religious organization on a full-time, compensated basis. This would not legally prohibit any lawful permanent resident from accepting any employment of his or her choice after immigration to the United States. Rather, it would simply make the religious worker requirements consistent with the existing requirements for ministers under section 101(a)(27)(C)(ii)(I), who must be seeking entry solely for the purpose of carrying on their vocation, and with the administration of other employment-based immigration categories that require documentation of an employer's intention to employ the alien in a specific full-time position for which he or she has the necessary professional qualifications. Requiring that the two years of experience be full-time, and that the alien be entering for the purpose of full-time religious work, focuses more directly on the individual's commitment to working for the religious organization, and reduces the possibility of abusing the religious worker category merely to obtain a green card and work somewhere else - an outcome that serves neither the needs of the religious organization nor the goals this program was intended to achieve.
These two improvements to the religious worker program were proposed by the INS in 1995 as a regulatory change, but were not finalized. The GAO report - which described them as "reasonable steps to help improve program integrity" -- has added to the urgency of their implementation.
The GAO report noted that INS and DOS are attempting to balance the need to screen out unqualified applicants with the religious worker program's original purpose of facilitating the entry of qualified religious workers. We are developing a number of initiatives to improve the visa screening process and to detect and deter fraud.
One INS initiative favorably described by the GAO report is to revise its documentary requirements for a religious worker immigrant petition. Specifically, we would require that the intending employer/petitioner provide a description of the qualifications for the position to be filled. The applicant, during the visa interview, would have to demonstrate to the satisfaction of the consular officer that he or she possesses the skills needed for the particular position. This way there would be interrelated evidence that can be examined for internal consistency. This increased evidentiary standard for the visa approval process would provide for a more thorough adjudication and would discourage questionable petitions. It would complement our current requirement that employers establish their ability to compensate immigrant religious workers. This initiative will be implemented by regulation upon statutory extension of the religious worker program.
Another issue which was favorably noted in the GAO Report was the requirement of having the sponsoring organization submit additional evidence regarding its ability to financially support the applicant. INS is currently requiring sponsoring organizations to submit additional evidence regarding their ability to support the applicants financially. INS regulations request sufficient documentation from the employers to establish their ability to support immigrant religious workers. However, should an INS officer or consular officer continue to feel uncertain about the petitioner or applicant, they have the authority to request additional information as they see fit.
The GAO Report also favorably noted our suggested change to the visa screening program of incorporating new software applications that would assist the INS Service Centers in identifying organizations filing petitions for numerous workers. All INS Service Centers now have relational databases which enable them to quickly and efficiently determine how many filings have been made by a petitioning organization in order to establish a trend of multiple-filers. In addition, each INS Service Center has the capability to share access to each of the other Service Center's databases, greatly enhancing their ability to identify fraudulent or inconsistent petitions.
This hearing on the religious worker program provides the Committee with a good opportunity also to strengthen the integrity of the nonimmigrant religious worker provision under section 101(a)(15)(R) of the INA. Unlike many other nonimmigrant visa categories, there is no statutory requirement under current law that an "R" nonimmigrant have a residence in a foreign country which he or she has no intention of abandoning, or that the nonimmigrant have any qualifying work experience. As a result, "R" visas may be available to aliens who lack any qualifications for religious work other than membership in a denomination, and who would not qualify for even a tourist visa based on their lack of a foreign residence. We recommend making "R" visas more consistent with other nonimmigrant categories by adding a foreign residence requirement, and by adding a requirement of significant religious work experience immediately preceding the time of application for admission.
In summation, we support the continuation of this beneficial and important provision of our immigration law and are committed to continuing our work to improve the integrity of the religious worker program. Mr. Chairman, this concludes my statement, and I would be happy to answer the Committee's questions.