A Priest, a Rabbi, and a Minister Walk Into an Immigration Office

Author Emily Dietle

My focus is on state-church separation & social issues. I'm an avid reader, and feel that one of our most valuable tools is the free movement of information and ideas. | @emilyhasbooks

As I was reading about forty-seven year old “Reverend” Angel Armando Perez, sentenced Monday for the sexual assault of a twelve year old boy, one note about him stood out boldly. The first priest of Mexican descent in Portland OR, is in this country legally because he is a minister of religion. During the past twenty years, things have changed in our law books. Religious organizations are insidiously encroaching upon our immigration law.

In addition to the standard three ways to acquire a green card through family, job, or refugee status, Congress amended the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) in 1990 to create a special immigrant status for ministers and non-ministers in religious vocations, and they have reenacted the law multiple times since. Easier to acquire is a temporary work visa with the Special Immigrant Religious Workers status. Why are religious workers given special permissions to obtain residence? It’s called privilege, and it is something that religious leaders are far too comfortable possessing and wielding.

These special resident statuses are inclusive of priests, rabbis, and ministers, as well as leaders ordained and participating in less popular cults, and those that do other religious work for them- nuns, monks, missionaries, translators, religious instructors, cantors, and other pastoral care providers. To qualify for either the green card or work visa, there are three basic requirements which vary slightly in language:

  1. Member of a “bona fide non-profit religious denomination” for at least two years
  2. Working continuously for the past two years prior to filing the immigrant petition:
    • As a religious minister either professional or non-professional capacity, or
    • In a religious occupation either professional or nonprofessional capacity
  3. Seek to enter the U.S. solely to carry out religious occupation of the employer’s denomination in a compensated position.

Specific to the INA work visa is a Non-Minister Religious Worker Cap, an annual limitation of 5,000 applications for non-minister religious work visas. There is no restriction for the amount of immigrant ministers allowed permanent residence. Family is welcome, too; the spouse and unmarried children of the applicant may accompany the principal religious worker to the United States.

Now this Act was slated to end in 2012, and on September 28th of last year, but our President signed Public Law 112-176, extending the privileged program another three years. Why are we reinstating it? According to a document published by the Conference of Catholic Bishops in January 2011, “religious organizations are experiencing an acute shortage of non-minister religious workers in the United States,” so we’re using public dollars and resources to restock them.

While this particular privilege in the law isn’t currently being challenged, organizations like Americans United, American Atheists, and FFRF are fervently working to re-establish the sensible line between state and church that respects and protects us all. Religion does not deserve a free pass. If you agree, there are many ways to make a difference right now, and without your support, the great wall of separation will crumble. Volunteer. Donate. Become a Member. Spearhead a Lawsuit. Run for Office.