Once again, September 30 is quickly approaching, and the Special Immigrant Non-Minister Religious Worker (Religious Worker) program originally created in 1990 is set to expire unless reauthorized by that date. The program has been reauthorized numerous times, most recently 3 years ago.
The Religious Worker program provides temporary visas for non-minister religious workers who are not ordained to perform religious worship services, but fill other roles critical to a faith’s ability to carry out its religious and charitable mandates. Non-ministers serve a wide variety of congregations and religious communities, and include religious teachers, translators, cantors, nuns, monks, clerics, mullahs, and so on.
Fortunately, Senator Orrin Hatch has introduced S.1339, a bill that would permanently authorize the Religious Worker program. Strong faith communities are essential to American civil life, especially as immigrants learn about and transition into American culture. And faith communities cannot function without leaders and those willing to offer religious service, regardless of whether they are ordained priests. Making the Religious Worker program permanent will help to reduce the uncertainty religious organizations face each time the program is set to expire, and will enable religious organizations to plan ahead and better serve their members and the greater community.
That is why earlier this year, 20 different groups representing diverse faiths such as Jewish, Hindu, Catholic, Scientologist, Mormon, Lutheran, and Evangelical, signed a letter to Congressional representatives asking for “immediate passage” of S. 1339. These faith groups explained that non-minister religious workers “provide critical services” for their religious communities and for society, including “religious education and care for vulnerable populations such as the elderly, immigrants, refugees, the homeless and hungry, abused and neglected children, and families at risk.”
Without the Religious Worker program, many religious denominations will have no effective way of meeting their need for religious workers. This is a nation of immigrants, and many non-minister religious workers are brought to the United States specifically to assist an immigrant faith community. For example, youth leaders may be brought to support a struggling immigrant youth population, or translators may be brought to help immigrant church-goers understand religious services. Hindus, in particular, lack the facilities in the United States to properly train religious workers, and consequently rely on the program to staff religious institutions, including Hindu temples. Similarly, Muslims use religious worker visas to bring Muslim scholars to the United States to promote authentic Islamic beliefs and resist extremism.
Even for more well-established faiths, additional religious workers are often needed in remote areas. For example, Jewish congregations in small communities rely on foreign religious workers such as rabbis, cantors, kosher butchers, and Hebrew school teachers. An important Jewish group has said that “without them, many Jewish communities would be unable to sustain the institutions and practices that are essential to Jewish religious and communal life.”
As members of Congress consider reauthorizing the Religious Worker program, there have been attempts by some to condition permanent reauthorization of the non-minister visa program on an impractical and harmful requirement: restricting visas to religious workers from countries that offer reciprocal treatment to Americans, and are not serious violators of religious liberty. Unfortunately, this kind of reciprocity restriction would be worse for religious freedom, here and abroad. It would add fuel to the fire in countries where believers are already persecuted. Instead of facilitating the teaching of minority faiths and supporting religious groups in countries that restrict religious freedom, we would be stopping them in their tracks—essentially condoning their countries’ religious persecution. A reciprocity restriction erroneously equates religious groups with the countries where they operate, like a trade treaty would. But religion is not commerce or trade—it functions beyond borders. A reciprocity restriction would be terrible for American churches, without having any positive impact on religious freedom abroad.
Fortunately, there is broad support from religious communities for S.1339. They recognize that without the visa program for non-ministers, they would be forced to try to fit their needs into traditional employment visa categories, which would be burdensome and, in many cases, unsuccessful. That was the reason the non-minister religious worker program was authorized in the first place, 25 years ago. S.1339 recognizes that religious organizations have unique needs not addressed by other visa classifications, and that a special non-minister religious worker visa program is essential to sustain religious life in the United States.
And, realizing that the Fiscal Year end is looming, a temporary extension is better than no extension at all. AILA members, community and faith leaders, and the public should tell Congress to act quickly to ensure the program does not sunset.
 House Report No. 108-271, at 5 (citing letter from Agudath Israel of America et al).
Written by Elaine Young, AILA Utah Chapter member