MILDRED A. PATTERSON
DIRECTORATE FOR VISA SERVICES
BUREAU OF CONSULAR AFFAIRS
DEPARTMENT OF STATE
SUBCOMMITTEE ON IMMIGRATION AND CLAIMS
COMMITTEE ON THE JUDICIARY
UNITED STATES HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
June 29, 2000
Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee:
Thank you for the opportunity to appear before you to give the views of the Department of State on the nature of fraud in the religious worker visa program. Last year the Department of State provided its views on this topic to the General Accounting Office for a study that office was conducting. I will share those views with the Subcommittee today. In doing so I will touch upon the problems consular posts have reported to us with regard to these programs and the conclusions we have drawn from their comments. However, although my remarks are directed at the specific topic of fraud, I wish to note that, in general, the Department believes the immigrant and nonimmigrant religious worker visa programs have been successful.
In comparison to other visa programs the immigrant and nonimmigrant religious worker visa programs are small. In fiscal year 1999, we issued 8,518 "R" visas, up from 6,845 the previous fiscal year. In fiscal year 1999, 2,713 immigrant visa numbers were used for the permanent religious worker program. Only seventeen percent of the aliens using a number received immigrant visas. The other eighty-three per cent of immigrant religious workers adjusted status in the United States. In fiscal year 1998, 4,488 immigrant visa numbers were used for the permanent program, only sixteen per cent of those workers obtained visas.
Overall, based upon several years of experience with these programs, the Department believes that, as in other visa categories, there is some measure of fraud in the religious worker programs. We do not believe, however, that the level of fraud in these programs is necessarily greater than that of other visa programs. Nevertheless, as the Department's objective is to seek to make all visa programs as free of fraud as possible, we do have one or two suggestions for changes in the programs. Our suggestions have been developed in part from a survey of consular posts that we conducted in 1998 in order to assist the General Accounting Office in making its report. First I will summarize the results of our survey and the concerns of consular officers around the world. Then I will offer the Department's suggestions for addressing those concerns.
In all, eighty-three posts responded to our request for information on the level and types of fraud that they encounter when adjudicating religious worker visas. Forty-one percent of the responding posts said they encountered some fraud in these programs. Forty-four percent did not, and eighteen percent responded that they did not receive a sufficient number of applications for religious worker visas to be able to comment. Our survey showed that a number of posts believed fraud in the programs stemmed from loosely drawn statutory requirements for classification as a religious worker. Many posts, lacking knowledge of the practices and hierarchies of unfamiliar religions, reported difficulty in determining whether a particular applicant ought to be classified as a religious worker at all. Others cited the lack of reliable documentation from some religious organizations. Many believed the applicant for a nonimmigrant religious worker visa ought to be required to demonstrate that he or she maintained a residence abroad to which he or she intended to return.
Posts noted that, as contained in the statute, the definition of religious worker is so broad that meaningful adjudication often is impossible. A common sentiment was that, aside from the non-religious occupations such as cleaning and maintenance staff or fundraiser that have been excluded by regulation, any occupation tangentially related to the religion could arguably be described as a religious occupation. Additionally, absent a requirement that the alien be engaged full-time in the occupation, many posts felt compelled to issue visas to applicants whose work, while it could perhaps be described as being associated with the practice of a religion, would clearly not occupy their full time. Therefore, posts believed that the applicant may have intended to find additional or completely different employment once admitted into the United States, or otherwise was using the religious worker category simply as a convenient means of immigration.
Our posts also mentioned the fact that, given the great number and diverse nature of religious denominations, often it is extremely difficult for consular officers to determine whether occupations described by applicants are in fact bona fide religious occupations and further whether there is an actual need for the services of the applicant. In addition, different religions use common terms such as missionary, deacon, or even priest in very different ways. In many instances, lacking knowledge of certain religions, consular officers have little ability to challenge the description of or qualifications alleged to be suitable for a particular occupation. In those cases the officer must rely almost totally on the word of the sponsoring organization and the applicant. Such reliance becomes problematic if the denomination is newly established, very small and localized, or "nontraditional." In nonimmigrant cases in particular, consular officers have no accurate way of gauging the need of a denomination or organization in the United States for workers. Therefore, there have been questions raised in many instances in which a large number of applicants apply for visas to work at the same individual church or organization in the United States.
Mr. Chairman, the consular officer comments I have mentioned thus far could apply either to immigrant or nonimmigrant visa applicants. There are, however, two problems with existing law that they may invite a significant element of fraud into the "R" nonimmigrant program. First, there is no experiential or training requirement to obtain an "R" visa. The only requirements are proof of membership in the organization and proof of the intent to engage in a religious occupation. As I have mentioned, given the lack of a more precise definition of a religious occupation this means in some instances that a consular officer must issue a visa to an applicant virtually without proof of the applicant's ability to do the work in question. Except in the few instances in which the application is fraudulent on its face, such cases usually come down to whether the applicant seems to have any knowledge of the basic tenets of the particular religion, assuming that the consular officer even knows what those may be. One can easily see how the open definition of religious occupation combined with the lack of a requirement for any significant religious work experience would tempt many aliens who could not otherwise qualify for a work-related visa to seek the "R."
The problem is compounded by the fact that, once in the United States, the unskilled alien may then obtain the required two years of experience in order to qualify for adjustment of status under the immigrant religious worker program. Therefore, given the pull of U.S. lawful permanent resident status and the problems I have described in determining the legitimacy of many religious worker cases, it is easy to see how an alien who has insufficient skills to qualify for other employment visa categories, or who faces a long wait to receive a family-based immigrant visa, or who has no other hope of immigration at all, might find the "R" visa a convenient vehicle for an attempt to immigrate.
In the second instance, applicants for nonimmigrant religious worker visas do not have to demonstrate they have a residence abroad that they have no intention of abandoning. Given the temporary nature of many assignments of religious workers to various locations around the world, it is understandable that this might be a difficult evidentiary burden to meet even for bona fide workers. We believe however, that the absence from the statute of some test of intent to depart the United States is simply too great a magnet for non-bona fide aliens, so that it should not be ignored. This is especially true in light of my comments regarding the attractiveness to such aliens of the loosely defined religious worker categories.
I stated at the outset of my testimony that the Department has some suggestions for legislative improvements to the religious worker program. Given my comments, they likely are self-evident. The Department would recommend that the Subcommittee consider a refined definition of a nonimmigrant religious worker to include a requirement for significant religious work experience immediately preceding the time of application for a visa. This would help insure that the visa applicant is actually qualified for the position sought and has a commitment to the occupation. We would also suggest that more specific language regarding the nature of a religious occupation be included in the statute. Finally, we suggest that a requirement be placed in the statute that an applicant for a nonimmigrant religious worker visa be able to demonstrate either that they have a residence abroad that they have no intention of abandoning, or that it is the usual practice of their denomination or organization to periodically require international transfer of its workers. We bring these suggestions to your attention, since any attempt to include these requirements in regulation might be seen as an attempt by administrators to create legislation.
Mr. Chairman, this concludes my remarks. The Department would be pleased to work with your staff on improving the religious worker programs as we have suggested. I will be happy to answer any questions you may have.