Photo: Catholic Priests
A handful of religious organizations, including two based in the Chicago region, have joined efforts in challenging a national immigration policy that discriminates against religious workers, according to a new federal lawsuit.
According to the complaint, filed Jan. 3 in U.S. District Court in Chicago, the government is unlawfully restricting the amount of time foreign priests, nuns, ministers and other missionaries carry out religious services in the United States.
Under current U.S. policy, nonimmigrant religious workers with an R-1 visa are granted a five-year maximum stay in the U.S. If a religious worker under R-1 status leaves the country at any point, whether for a personal or business trip, the time spent outside the U.S. is still calculated into their five-year limit.
However, other temporary workers, such as those with an H-1B or L-1 visa, are allowed to “recapture” time spent outside the country and extend their stay in the U.S. accordingly.
Even though the language governing R-1, H-1B and L-1 visas is nearly identical, “religious workers are treated differently for some reason,” said Scott D. Pollock, the attorney representing the religious groups.
The suit claims the policy prevents sponsors from employing religious workers for the full five-year period that they are entitled. As a result, some religious workers are being forced to leave the U.S. before they have fulfilled their assignments.
“That takes away a minister from a needed post in the United States and deprives the religious organizations, the sponsors, of that minister’s services,” Pollock said. “And to us, that restricts the religious organizations’ and the religious workers’ freedom to provide service here.”
The Society of the Divine Word Chicago Province, a Roman Catholic order of missionary priests and religious brothers based in the northern suburb Techny, and the Holy Spirit Missionary Sisters, a Catholic congregation headquartered in Northfield, are among the plaintiffs. Also included are Maryland-based Missionary Servants of the Most Holy Trinity and the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A.
The suit, filed against the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, is seeking to ensure that future R-1 applicants will not have time spent outside of the U.S. count towards their five-year stay. There are approximately 20,000 individuals with R-1 status in the United States.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office, which is representing the defendants, declined to comment.