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Immigration filing change puts religious workers at risk

A green card backlog may harm churches and ministries

The Rev. Gustavo Castillo, pastor of a church in Columbia Heights, Minn., has a foreign-born religious workers visa. Associated Press/Photo by Giovanna Dell'Orto

Immigration filing change puts religious workers at risk

The town of Cactus, Texas, doesn’t have a Walmart but has a mosque and halal meat market. The meatpacking plant, dairy farming, and agriculture jobs in the town of roughly 3,000 draw large numbers of asylum-seekers and refugees. “There is no community when you have 20 to 26 different nationalities living in a town this size,” said Alshandra Visagie, the executive director of Cactus Nazarene Ministries.

The ministry works with people who know little about life in the United States. Visagie and her staff show immigrants, many of whom live in mobile homes near the packing plant, how to shop for groceries. They teach budgeting and host English classes. She and her husband planted a church where community members gather for a meal most Sundays.

But Visagie worries that a green card processing delay may cut their work short just as it’s getting started. She and her family moved to the United States from South Africa in February 2022 on a two-and-a-half-year religious worker visa, which expires next year in June. They can renew their visas once for a total of five years. After that, they plan to file for green cards and become permanent residents. But due to long wait times, they may not be able to do so before their visa expires.

Congress allocates a limited number of green cards between several categories based on job skills or relationships to family members already in the United States. Countries with disproportionately high numbers of immigrants are separated into their own queues so that immigrants like the Visagies can apply for a green card before their visas run out. Religious worker visas are an employment-based, fourth preference visa (EB-4) a category that includes people who assisted the U.S. military, such as in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as children who have been abused or exploited in their home country.

But on April 1, the government stopped separating thousands of children from El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, and Guatemala into their own category, adding years to the wait for religious workers. Unless Congress intervenes, religious workers must leave the country when their visas expire. Many are scrambling to switch to another visa to extend their stay.

Immigration attorney Lance Conklin looked into the change after he received a worried email from a client. “I instantly knew, ‘This is going to be huge,’” he said. “You’re looking at a 10- to 15-year wait.”

The green card application is a two-step process. If an individual’s visa expires while they’re in the first stage of the process, they must leave the country for at least a year before they can apply for another religious worker visa to buy them more time. “That creates all kinds of challenges for churches,” said Conklin. It also means hundreds more dollars in application fees. In the second stage of the process, green card applicants can live and work in the country until they receive their green card. At least 10 of Conklin’s clients were in that second stage when the rule change lengthened the wait starting in April. “They were at the front of the line,” he said. “When midnight hit, they were now two, three, four, or five years behind.”

The Department of State issues 10,000 EB-4 visas per year; traditionally, immigrants from a particular country can only receive 7 percent of all visas. The EB-4 green cards are issued similarly.

In recent years, increases in gang violence have racked the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, forcing thousands of families and children to flee. Children abandoned, abused, or neglected were eligible for a special immigrant juvenile visa, which Congress placed in the same EB-4 category and green card application line as the religious workers’ visas. Green card applications surged, but the State Department separated applications from Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries into a different line, so the backlog only affected religious workers from those nations.

But earlier this year, the State Department decided it had been doing it wrong. Officials said they shouldn’t have separated the children into another queue, despite their overwhelming numbers, since Northern Triangle applicants weren’t using all of their spots in other visa and green card categories. Currently, there is an estimated backlog of 40,000 visas for vulnerable children, swamping the estimated 5,900 religious worker visas issued in 2022, according to the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

That puts churches and ministries that rely on foreign-born, immigrant pastors in a bind. As immigrant communities explode across the United States, more congregations than ever need pastors with the “language and cultural competencies to lead churches that have unique needs,” said Matthew Soerens, the U.S. director of church mobilization and advocacy for World Relief. “Many denominations rely upon that program.”

Flavio Barbosa, a Brazilian on a religious workers visa, leads a predominantly Portuguese-speaking church in a city outside of Orlando, Fla. “It’s a big problem,” he said about the green card wait, adding that he doesn’t want to think about the possibility of leaving his church.

Conklin is helping some of his clients apply for a more generic, employment-based green card with a shorter wait time. But he said it’s more expensive and isn’t an option for everyone.

Only Congress can solve the problem, either by removing the vulnerable minors’ applications from the EB-4 category or extending religious workers’ visas while they wait. Lawmakers passed a similar exception for employment-based green applicants on H1-B visas. A backlog of applicants from India is forcing many applicants to wait decades. But Congress allowed them to remain in the country if they applied for a green card before their visa ran out.

“There is no such law for religious workers,” said Conklin, adding he is skeptical that Congress will take action on the issue anytime soon.

In the meantime, the administration could shorten the time an individual must remain outside the country once his or her visa expires before returning on another visa. Officials could also make it easier for religious workers to change jobs without having to restart the green card process. Regulatory exceptions currently allow H1-B visa holders to keep their place in the green card line even if they have to file another application due to a promotion or position change.

Visagie and her family plan on applying for their green cards at the same time as their visa renewal to get a head start on the now yearslong process. “And then let the green card stay in process and pray that something changes in the immigration law that allows this process to be faster,” said Visagie.

In case it doesn’t, they’re preparing to leave the country. “We know that this is exactly where God has called us to be,” she said, adding that they’re trusting God to move and praying for His guidance. “We believe that if You’ve called us, You will open doors that nobody can shut.”

Addie Offereins

Addie is a WORLD reporter who often writes about poverty fighting and immigration. She is a graduate of Westmont College and the World Journalism Institute. She lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband, Ben.

You sure do come up with exciting stuff to read, know, and talk about. —Chad

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