Rules Are for Schmucks: The Amazing Special Privilege for Religious Immigrants

There are some people who think that the United States shouldn’t have any immigration restrictions at all. Anybody should be able to come and live here whenever they like. Others think that we’re too crowded already, so we ought to just shut the door and not let anyone else in.

Most of us fall somewhere in the middle, as does current US immigration law. There should be some limits on how many immigrants we allow every year and some categorization of what kind of people we let in first, last, or not at all. Convicted child molesters, for example, would rank near the bottom of the list. Experts in certain technical jobs that can’t be readily filled from US sources would rank near the top, especially if their presence helps us make products that generate additional jobs for US workers. How exactly you define that technical job category is open to legitimate debate, and so is whether there really is a shortage of such workers in the US or whether employers just want to hire foreign technical workers more cheaply than they can hire qualified Americans. But the basic concept seems sound.

There is a little-known special category in the immigration pecking order, though, that makes no sense at all. It’s called the “Special Immigrant Non-Minister Religious Worker Visa.” The loophole was created by Congress back in 1990 on a temporary basis, then extended repeatedly ever since. The most recent extension, signed by President Obama in the election year 2012, expires on September 30, 2015. Senators Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Ben Cardin (D-MD) just introduced legislation to make it permanent.

The loophole allows up to 5,000 foreign nationals—plus their entire families—to enter the US every year to perform work for the benefit of religious organizations. These don’t have to be ordained ministers; there is a different special privilege available for them, with no annual limit. Once here, they can stay permanently. By my math, if the program has been around since 1990 and each immigrant brings on the average a spouse and one child, that’s 375,000 people.

What do these people do once they get here? Basically, they take jobs that require little special training that American citizens could easily fill—in religious indoctrination, hospitals, and proselytizing missions.

Why do religious organizations need to import foreigners to do this work? In a burst of candor, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops admitted the real reason in 2011: “With the rapid decrease in the number of Americans turning to religious vocations, religious organizations are experiencing an acute shortage of non-minister religious workers in the United States.” In other words, religion is fading so fast that they can’t hire enough Americans to do their proselytizing for them, so they need to import foreigners to do it instead.

A recent letter to Congress from an array of church groups (including the Church of Scientology) mentions something else these immigrants do: “training health care professionals to provide religiously appropriate health care.” Religiously appropriate health care? What’s that? According to the Scientologists, it’s health care that regards the entire field of psychiatry as evil quackery, to be replaced by their own brand of voodoo. According to the Catholics, it’s health care that refuses to make available anything positive that might come from embryonic stem cell research and that will not perform an abortion, even to save the life of the mother. According to the Christian Scientists (who also signed the letter), it’s faith healing that shuns nearly all of modern medicine.

So who comes riding to the rescue of the Church of Scientology et al? Uncle Sam, of course, with a special program to prefer immigrants who advance the cause of Scientology and other religions over immigrants who do not.

We know from the recent Pew Religious Landscape Study that American Catholicism, in particular, is being propped up by immigration. A stunning 27 percent of American Catholics today are first generation immigrants. We also know from the bishops that many of the religious imports devote their energies to “helping” other immigrants, both current and potential. If there is a Catholic recruitment slant to the help they give, as is virtually certain, then there is a multiplier effect to the privilege benefiting the church even more. How much would the decline in Catholicism accelerate in coming years if there were a level playing field for immigration?

In 2005, the Citizenship and Immigration Service (CIS) ran a little study about how this program was working. Hold on to your hat—they actually discovered that a religion-oriented government program was riddled with outright fraud. Who’d have suspected? CIS uncovered an astonishing 33 percent fraud rate. Instead of drawing the sensible conclusion that the whole idea was a disaster, CIS in true bureaucratic fashion concluded that what was needed was more bureaucracy—more paperwork, more double-checking, more taxpayer-funded staff resources, and more need for lawyers to assist the applicants. They piled on more regulations in 2008. The Department of Homeland Security reviewed the new procedures in 2009 and concluded that, indeed, they had piled on more paperwork, but that “subtle fraud is expected to persist.”

This comes from an agency with an unconscionable backlog of visa applications and wait times of many years, even for skilled professionals. How much would getting rid of a fraud fiasco religious visa program free up resources to help legitimate immigrants, without regard to their supernatural belief?

If the 5,000 annual slots for proselytizers and faith healers (plus their families) were removed, where would these slots go? More opportunities for science workers who can strengthen our economy? Maybe. Or maybe they could go toward providing safe haven for nonbelievers and others who are being viciously persecuted by God experts around the world.

There is absolutely no justification for Congress to continue favoring religious worker applicants over anyone else. The program must be allowed to die.