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Guest editorial: Fix religious worker visas

Missionaries from the MTC in Provo Utah, sing during the Saturday afternoon session of the 186th Semiannual General Conference at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2016.
Missionaries from the MTC in Provo Utah, sing during the Saturday afternoon session of the 186th Semiannual General Conference at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2016.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Our visa system is a tangled mess. But Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah has a modest bill that will fix part of it.

For many decades, churches have brought religious workers to the United States for limited terms of religious service. Some are Catholic priests who serve in parishes that have no priest and limited resources. Others serve Evangelical congregations, caring for the homeless and the poor. Some are youth missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. These religious workers come legally under government-issued visas and then depart when their time is up.

Foreign missionaries benefit not only their religious communities but all of us. Americans, regardless of faith, are enriched by their community service, unique cultural perspectives and simple goodness. And after living among us, learning our language and culture, these missionaries return home as goodwill ambassadors for America, countering anti-Americanism in their home countries with real understanding and genuine love for our great nation.

To provide just two examples (shared with permission), one LDS missionary from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Hans Nguwa, spent two years in the Dallas area serving the people of Texas. In addition to his primary role of sharing a message about Jesus Christ, he lived that message through his example, helping provide food and clothing to tornado victims and serving food to prisoners. Another LDS missionary, Chin-Man Hu from Taiwan, taught English in the Minneapolis area to recent immigrants from Africa and Asia. These individuals, like thousands of other religious workers who come to the United States each year, made a lasting, positive difference in the communities in which they served.

Unfortunately, U.S. churches run into needless roadblocks and bureaucratic delays when seeking visas for foreign missionaries. Federal law allows a foreign missionary sponsored by a U.S. church to get a religious worker (“R-1”) visa. But federal regulations require sponsoring churches and religious organizations — even those with large, long-established missionary programs — to submit the same extensive documentation over and over again. For each R-1 visa application, a church must start from square one, proving that it actually exists, verifying its tax-exempt status, demonstrating financial support, explaining the nature of its missionary work, and so on — even if it has done so numerous times before. The LDS Church, for example, has submitted essentially identical documentation over 7,000 times over the last eight years, which already-swamped federal officials then had to review.

As a result, a process that once required no more than 30 days routinely takes at least 7-9 months. Religious workers ready to serve in the United States are forced to put their lives on hold for unreasonable periods of time, forgoing schooling and careers while waiting for a visa. Some begin their missionary service in their home nations, anxiously awaiting visa approval. Sometimes it never comes (or comes too late), necessitating a change in their assignment. Others are forced to cancel their service as the months drag on without any hope of resolution. These disappointments and delays can discourage foreign missionaries from volunteering and impose real burdens on the religious organizations that desperately need them.

None of this makes America safer. Instead, it forces federal officials to waste time and resources on pointless paperwork when they could be protecting our nation from real threats.

Sen. Hatch has a solution. He recently introduced the Religious Worker Visa Improvement Act, a bill that would break the R-1 visa logjam by allowing U.S. churches with established track records to submit a single petition for their foreign missionaries. This “blanket” petition would contain all the religious organization’s key documentation, replacing thousands of costly and repetitive individual petitions.

Would this weaken national security or loosen immigration requirements? Absolutely not.

The Religious Worker Visa Improvement Act doesn’t increase the number of R-1 visas or change who qualifies for them. The new streamlined process would apply only to missionary programs with a clear history of complying with federal law. The bill is limited to missions that have already passed a federal fraud inspection, ensuring that the missionary service is legitimate. And it requires the sponsoring religious organization to prove it can financially support the foreign missionary, so taxpayers are never on the hook.

This is a practical reform we should all support. The Religious Worker Visa Improvement Act would not just end a senseless backlog. It would save taxpayers millions of dollars each year without compromising safeguards for national security, freeing up federal officials to tackle serious immigration problems.

Elaine Young is an attorney at Kirton/McConkie.