Legislation to reauthorize a permanent visa program for foreign religious workers through 2015 has drawn support from religious leaders across the country, after it was passed in both chambers of Congress.
“This program is vital to the mission of the Church in the United States, as it permits nuns, brothers, and lay persons from overseas to enter the country and work in church ministries,” said Archbishop José H. Gomez, who chairs the migration committee for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Archbishop Gomez explained in a Sept. 19 statement that these individuals “work in soup kitchens, homeless shelters, parishes and other important ministries, assisting dioceses and archdioceses in serving the vulnerable and spreading the Gospel.”
He encouraged President Obama to promptly sign the legislation into law before the program expires on Oct. 1.
On Sept. 13, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a bill that includes a provision to reauthorize the Special Immigrant Non-Minister part of the Religious Worker Visa Program for three years. The legislation had previously been approved by the Senate and will now be sent to the president for final approval.
The bill allows 5,000 foreign religious and lay persons in the U.S. to obtain permanent visas and to carry out social services and pastoral ministries in dioceses and communities throughout the country.
It does not apply to foreign priests living in the United States, who are covered by a separate and permanent portion of the Religious Worker Visa Program that does not need to be reauthorized by Congress.
While the non-minister program was originally approved in 1990, it requires periodic Congressional re-approval, which it has received six times. If the extension legislation is signed by President Obama, the program will continue through September 2015.
“We thank the House for following the Senate’s lead to renew for three years the Religious Worker Visa Program,” said Linda Hartke, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.
She explained that the program “boosts Lutheran churches’ ability to reach migrants and refugees by fulfilling unique staffing needs for language skills and cultural competency.”
In June, Hartke penned a letter encouraging the permanent reauthorization of the Special Immigrant Non-Minister Religious Worker Program, a call that was reiterated by more than a dozen faith groups, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, National Association of Evangelicals and Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.
“In the absence of a permanent reauthorization of the Special Immigrant Non-Minister Religious Worker program, we applaud this three-year extension to ensure that churches and religious organizations can continue to access this important program,” said Hartke.
Rev. Ruben Duran, director for new congregations at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, also applauded the program’s extension, saying that it would allow “many capable and uniquely qualified leaders” to “develop new communities of faith in the United States.”
Rev. Stephen Bouman, who serves as executive director of congregational and synodical mission for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, explained that the organization “depends on religious workers who are themselves immigrants and refugees.”
The extension of the Special Immigrant Non-Minister Religious Worker program is therefore critical for the group, “which resettles refugees, maintains direct services to vulnerable immigrant populations and starts and supports religious ministries of immigrants and refugees,” he said.