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Religious workers are at risk of their visas running out before their green card applications can be approved

The Rev. Gustavo Castillo preaches to his congregation at the Iglesia Pentecostal Unida Latinoamericana in Columbia Heights, Minn. Associated Press/Photo by Giovanna Dell'Orto

PAUL BUTLER, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: an immigration backlog is putting religious workers at risk.

Back in April, the State Department made a procedural change that added years to the wait time for some legal immigrants applying for permanent residence.

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: Unless Congress intervenes, some religious workers may need to leave the country when their visas expire. This puts churches and ministries who rely on these foreign workers in a difficult position.

BUTLER: Let's start with how green cards work. A green card allows an immigrant to live and work permanently in the United States. The U.S. government currently issues more than a million green cards per year, divided among about 100 categories.

Picture this like checkout lines at a grocery store, only in this case, people are directed to specific lines based on their circumstances.

BROWN: Religious workers are a part of a special employment-based visa category known as EB-4. That category also includes people assisting the U.S. military and children who have been abused or neglected in their home country.

Several years ago, The State Department recategorized children from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico from the EB-4 category into their own line when gang violence forced thousands to flee their homes. But earlier this year, officials moved those 40,000 cases back into the larger EB-4 line.

Immigration attorney Lance Conklin explains the backlog of cases this created:

LANCE CONKLIN: They are children that were abandoned, abused, or neglected, and that just skyrocketed, they entered the United States. And they were eligible for this special green card. And so thousands of applications started to get filed. That's where the backlog started for that EB-4 classification, which impacts religious workers.

BUTLER: And just how bad is this backlog?

CONKLIN: I had probably around 10 to 15 people that were in the last step of the process in March that were eligible on at 11:59 March 31, for green card. And when midnight hit, they were now two, three, four or five years behind.

BUTLER: And if someone’s visa expires before they reach the front of the line, they’ll have to leave the country for at least a year.

BROWN: This could put churches and ministries in a bind. Matthew Soerens is World Relief’s U.S. director of church mobilization:

MATTHEW SOERENS: Obviously for evangelical churches that are growing in immigrant communities, it's really important to access pastors who have the language and cultural competencies to lead churches that have you know, those unique needs, and many denominations rely upon that program.

BROWN: One of these religious visa holders is Alshandra Visagie. Last year, she and her family moved from South Africa to a tiny town in the Texas panhandle called Cactus Last. She’s the Executive Director of Cactus Nazarene Ministry Center. They provide services to the other immigrants who work in a nearby meatpacking plant.

ALSHANDRA VISAGIE: Ideally my vision for why I'm here is to change a city. To develop a community where there is no community. There is no community when you have 20 to 26 different nationalities living in a town this size.

BROWN: Visagie and her family want to make their ministry permanent with a green card, but if they get lost in the backlog, they’ll have to leave in about three years.

BUTLER: So what could be done to fix this problem? One solution would be for Congress to remove the vulnerable minors’ applications from the EB-4 category. Or they could also extend the visas of religious workers while they wait.

Another angle would be for the Executive branch to shorten the time religious workers must remain outside the country before returning on another visa to continue the green card wait.

BROWN: In the meantime, Visagie isn’t putting her hope in the government’s ability to fix the problem.

VISAGIE: Right now we are seeking the Lord. Like Lord, this is in your hands. You've called us. We believe that if you've called us, you will open those that nobody can shut.

BUTLER: Addie Offereins is WORLD’s Compassion beat reporter, and she wrote and reported this story. You can read her digital report online. We’ve included a link in today’s show notes.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.


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