SALT LAKE CITY — Every year, nearly 1,000 Mormon missionaries remain on hold in their home countries for as many as 11 months, waiting for a visa to enter the United States.
The delays force some to cancel their missions altogether. Others give up schooling or jobs because they can't predict when their visa will be approved. Many wind up starting their service in a mission in their home country or a neighboring one. The detour costs them months in their assigned missions.
The problem is a repetitive logjam of paperwork in the visa process for religious workers followed by the State Department since 2008. Staffers annually vet The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints nearly a thousand times, once for each missionary, and church staff prepares extensive documentation each time.
Meanwhile, leaders of LDS missions overseas scramble to make room for missionaries assigned to serve in the United States and mission presidents in America struggle to fill assignments and sometimes have to close apartments and suspend mission work in some areas when missionaries don't arrive.
A bill before Congress would collapse the duplication. The Religious Worker Visa Improvement Act would streamline the process for Mormon missionaries and for those of other established churches, ending the piles of paperwork and shaving months off the time of "visa waiters," a term that has become part of Mormon missionary jargon.
The LDS Church operates 124 missions in the United States. Most of the missionaries are Americans, but foreign-born missionaries are an integral part of each one, said Stephen Forbes, president of the Minnesota Minneapolis Mission.
Mormon men serve two-year missions beginning as early as age 18. Women serve for 18 months and are eligible when they turn 19. They believe their calls to serve are inspired.
When a missionary can't serve where and when he or she is assigned, problems arise. The problems are frequent. For example, every foreign-born missionary who required an R-1 visa to enter the United States and serve in Minnesota has missed his or her arrival date while waiting on a visa during the three years that Forbes has presided over the mission.
The delays have forced him to close areas of the mission he planned to have open.
Perhaps the most recognizable Mormon visa waiter is Sister Fanny Clain, who was injured in the March 2016 terrorist attack in the Brussels airport. Clain is a Frenchwoman who spent the first four months of her mission in Belgium and waited a total of seven months for permission to travel to the United States.
When her R-1 visa arrived in Paris, she traveled there with her companion to pick it up. Days later, she was at the airport to catch her flight to the States when a suicide bomber detonated an explosion near her and three missionaries who were dropping her off.
"I was supposed to serve in Ohio, but I had to wait for my visa," she said as she recovered from severe burns, shrapnel wounds and a subsequent infection."
After receiving medical treatment for her extensive wounds in the Brussels explosion, Clain served for 11 months in the Ohio Cleveland Mission. She completed her mission earlier this month.
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services introduced new regulations for religious workers or missionaries in 2008. The regulations required churches to submit extensive documentation to USCIS about their organizational structure, financial status and missionary program with every individual application. The goal is to avoid fraud and make sure missionaries don't become a financial burden.
The result is that well-established faiths prepare lengthy, duplicative petitions for each visa. The high volume of visa petitions slow the process. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said the backlog means a petition can languish for nine months with USCIS. Add in the time it takes a church to create the petition and for consular processing, and a missionary can wait up to 11 months.
Hatch introduced the Religious Worker Visa Improvement Act at the end of March. The bill would create a blanket petition for churches that have passed a federal fraud inspection.
"This bill would make a real dent in some of the problems the LDS Church has had," Hatch said.
He called missionary service the lifeblood for many churches and said long, unpredictable visa delays take a toll on "those who have answered the call to serve."
"My bill will shorten the visa processing time for longstanding and reputable religious organizations while preserving existing anti-fraud and security protections. It’s a win-win for everyone involved: USCIS can dedicate its limited resources to other pressing matters while missionaries in established programs can travel to their missions without lengthy delays."
The bill has been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Last week, Hatch brought it up in the confirmation of Lee Francis Cissna, the nominee for director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
"Sen. Hatch used the first question to raise the issue of R-1 visa reform," Hatch spokesman Matt Whitlock said Monday. "Cissna committed to work with him to address the processing delays affecting religious worker petitions."
The United States issued 23,029 R-1 visas between 2012-16, an average of 4,605 per year. In the past eight years, Mormon missionaries have received more than 7,000 R-1 visas, or nearly 1,000 per year, according to Elaine Young, an attorney at the Salt Lake City law firm Kirton McConkie, which represents the LDS Church.
R-1 visas annually go to pastors, priests, rabbis, other leaders and missionaries from the Catholic, Jewish and Hindu faiths as well as Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists and other evangelicals, including the Assemblies of God. In 2016, the most R-1 visas, 769, went to religious workers from India. Mexico was second with 463.
Forbes said that would solve pressing issues in his mission. For example, he regularly requests the LDS Church's Mission Department to send him more native Chinese speakers. The University of Minnesota has a large Chinese student population and student members of the church there need support.
"The Chinese are really a blessing," he said.
Mormon missionaries in the United States both teach the Gospel of Jesus Christ and provide wide-ranging community service.
"Missionaries from other countries are an integral part of and add great value to the work that we do here as a body of servants of God," said Sister Mary Forbes, who serves alongside her husband in the Minnesota mission.
Throughout the state, 200 missionaries provide both organized service and random personalized acts of help, Sister Forbes said. Most are involved with Feed My Starving Children, Food Shelf, Prince of Peace, FOCUS, Catholic Charities and other organizations that support refugees who are in the United States because of natural disasters or political asylum. They also help homeless, senior, disabled, physically and mentally ill populations and other recent immigrants by teaching ESL classes, helping with household chores, translation, paperwork and doing outdoor work like cutting wood and mowing lawns.
"Whether service is done by American missionaries or those from other countries, it is done generously and we consider it a natural part of our missionary labors," Sister Forbes said.
Kentucky Louisville Mission President Larry Brough said most of his missionaries work in food banks, unloading food trucks and stacking food. Many serve food in soup kitchens sponsored by other faiths. All of his Spanish-speaking missionaries tutor ESL (English as a second language) classes.
Sister Vale'aki Ta'ehia is a Tongan who got an R-1 visa to serve in the Texas Fort Worth Mission. She and her missionary companion recently unloaded donations, sorted clothes and cleaned a second-hand shop in Copperas Cove, Texas.
"Missionary work is hard," Ta'ehia said. "It will never be easy. ... I really love the people I serve, even though many things are hard."
Mission presidents said many foreign-born missionaries learn habits and skills that they take back to their home countries.
"They leave and go home in tears for the love of the American people, culture, and way of life," Kentucky Louisville Mission President Larry Brough said. "They become leaders in their countries and communities. What the mission does for them is it gives them a hope and desire to improve their life. Now they go back and get an occupation that raises their standard of living. They give even more service when they go back home."
Elder Hans Nguwa of the Democratic Republic of Congo learned life lessons once he received his R-1 visa and began to serve in the Texas Dallas Mission.
"I would say personally, there are people that work hard here," said Nguwa, who wants to attend college and become a pilot. "It has been a change for me. I want to accomplish things. Coming from a poor country, it was quite a difference for me. Keeping the missionary schedule has shown me how to get things done. Now I am able to plan for the future to see what I can do differently."
Iowa Des Moines Mission President Briant Badger said stateside missions also provide important opportunities for women from other countries. He said Sister Madelyn Tauti of Apia, Samoa, became proficient in writing and speaking English and served in leadership positions that gave her the confidence to attend college.
"Sister Tauti had an amazing experience," he said. "She became an excellent missionary and finished her mission as a sister training leader."
Many missionaries also go home and bust stereotypes about the United States.
"They go home as great ambassadors for the United States of America in their home countries," Brough said. "They are always very positive about the United States and helping other people understand our culture."
Nguwa's mission president in Dallas is Brian Taylor. He said R-1 visa missionaries create long-lasting goodwill for the United States when they return home.
"The multiplier effect of that goodwill that goes on in their countries from the U.S. side will become increasingly significant over the coming years," Taylor said. "They go home as ambassadors to their own countries in speaking for the great experiences that they have had here as missionaries."
The Forbes offered an example of two Swedes, one who spent eight months of her mission in Sweden waiting for her visa. They arrived in Minnesota carrying stereotypes about Americans but were impressed by the American culture of serving the poor.
Foreign-born missionaries also change the views of their American companions. Mormon missionaries work and serve in twos.
"Most of my companions didn't grow up having experiences with foreigners," said Sister Chin-Man Hu of Taoyuan, Taiwan, who served in the Minnesota mission. "Having a companion from a different country opens their understanding and changes their perspectives about other cultures in a positive way.
"We learned to work with each other even though we all came from different backgrounds."
Hu said there is another benefit from having foreign-born missionaries serving in the United States. She spent some of her mission serving as an English tutor at a public school in Hawthorne, Minnesota, that focused on providing free education to immigrants from Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
"I not only did the service in teaching, but also in connecting with their feelings of facing challenges to adjust and live in the United States," Hu said. "There was a lady from Africa who not only needed to go to school and finish her homework, but also needed to work. She felt stress from facing challenges from the language and cultural barrier, but I was able to help her out through my personal experience and background as a foreigner from Taiwan."