Immigration Service Catch-22s Religion

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Since  becoming part of the Department of Homeland Security, the federal agency formerly known as the Immigration and Naturalization Service has made it infuriatingly difficult for churches and synagogues to hire staff from abroad. Case in point: Nashville’s historic West End Synagogue.

This spring, the 135-year-old Conservative shul conducted a search for a new rabbi and decided to offer the position to an Argentine. In order to take the job, the rabbi must obtain an R-1 Temporary Religious Worker visa from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). And that’s where the fun begins.

To get an R-1 visa these days, you have to prove to the USCIS that you will be working for an IRS-determined 501 (c) (3) religious non-profit. But it is in fact very rare for congregations to have an IRS determination, because the Service simply assumes that churches, synagogues, etc. are entitled to the status, and will only question it for cause.

Indeed, when the West End Synagogue happened to request a determination letter for another reason three years ago, this is what the IRS’ now notorious non-profit unit in Cincinnati had to say in response:

Churches, their integrated auxiliaries, and conventions or associations of churches that meet the qualifications for exemption are automatically considered tax exempt under section 501 (c) (3) of the Code without applying for formal recognition of such status. No determination letters are issued to such organizations.

In other words, a perfect Catch-22: No R-1 visas for work in religious congregations without an IRS determination of non-profit status, together with an IRS policy of not providing religious congregations with determinations of non-profit status.

Now, according to immigration message boards, it may not actually be the case that the IRS never issues determination letters to congregations. But as far as immigration lawyer Gregory Siskind, who is representing West End, can tell, eliciting one takes a year, and few are willing to wait that long to bring a chosen spiritual leader on board. “What’s frustrating is that in a lot of cases people will just give up,” Siskind says.

Rather than wait on the IRS, West End is hoping to solve its problem by submitting the R-1 application by utilizing the non-profit status of its  denominational umbrella association, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. Plus help from its member of Congress, Rep. Jim Cooper. If USCIS agrees, it will send an agent to visit West End Synagogue to determine it is what it says it is.

If all this seems ridiculously cumbersome, that’s because it is. But let’s not blame the IRS. It’s not in the immigration business, and the fact that it prefers to take the word of churches etc. that they are in fact churches etc. is, given how short of staff it is and how many congregations there are, eminently sensible.

Inasmuch as the USCIS is using site visits to satisfy itself that a religious congregation is bona fide, it should no more require an IRS determination of non-profit status than the IRS itself does. If this seems beyond the capacity of the USCIS to get its head around, perhaps an amendment could be introduced to the immigration bill now about to be debated by the Senate. Why, it might even be a way to encourage Republican senators to vote yes. They don’t want to be seen standing in the way of the free flow of Judeo-Christian clergy, do they?