Religious Worker Visas are Unfairly Denied to Hindus — Hindu American Foundation Asks for Changes to Immigration Regulations

WASHINGTON, D.C. (June 6, 2007) – The legal advisory team of the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) recently submitted extensive comments to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) regarding proposed changes to the religious worker (R-1) visa program. After consultation with other Hindu institutions and temples including the Council of Hindu Temples of America, Saiva Siddhanta Church and Hinduism Today magazine, the Foundation’s legal division prepared the submission in response to mounting alarm in the Hindu community that Hindu priests, temple artisans and traditional temple architects were increasingly being denied religious worker visas. The Foundation writes that the proposed new regulations, in response to reports of abuse of the R-1 program, are reactionary and oblique enough to affect many religious institutions in this country, but could disproportionately and unfairly impact Hindus.

While agreeing that combating immigration fraud is in the national interest, the foundation’s submission argues that the proposed changes contain terminology, definitions and specific regulations that fail to recognize the unique vocabulary of non-Judeo-Christian religious traditions. The brief maintains that defining eligibility for R-1 status using terms such as “liturgical workers, catechists, cantors, missionaries, and ritual slaughter supervisors…may potentially serve to discriminate against those organizations that differ from the practice, structure and function of the Judeo-Christian guidelines upon which the regulations are based.”

The foundation is concerned that the USCIS proposals would restrict the flexibility consular officials have in determining the validity of a religious visa application. Hindus, Jains, Sikhs and Buddhists, for example, do not have the equivalent of a catechist or ritual slaughter supervisor, possibly resulting in visa denials for Hindu applicants who serve integral temple functions. There have been frequent reports recently of Hindu temples and religious groups in the U.S. reeling from visa denials resulting in shortages of temple priests and stalled temple construction projects.

“From what defines a Hindu religious occupation, to whether a temple shilpi [Hindu temple stone sculptor] belongs to a particular ‘denomination,’ the current terminology proposed by the USCIS is absolutely foreign to the Hindu tradition,” said Suhag Shukla, Esq., the foundation’s legal counsel. “As religious worker visas become more difficult to obtain for Hindus, Hindu Americans must insist that their voice is heard in this process—no less than the fundamental right to a free exercise of religion is at stake.”

The foundation’s submission to the USCIS includes specific suggestions to alter current definitions and regulations to encompass the diversity Hindu traditions and Hindu religious occupations. The brief also expresses concern that the visa application backlog combined with a proposed initial one-year limit on R-1 visas places a substantial administrative burden on community run Hindu temples throughout the U.S.

Coordinating its efforts on several fronts through its offices in the Washington, D.C. area, the foundation is working with representatives of several other faiths and congressional contacts to advocate for its proposed changes.

HAF's comments may be viewed at: http://www.hafsite.org/pdf/haf_r1.pdf

The R-1 visa website may be accessed from http://www.regulations.gov and then typing in “USCIS- 2005-0030” in the search field for Document ID. Individuals may then click on various links related to the document “Special Immigrant and Nonimmigrant Religious Workers” to view the proposed modifications and comments from the public, and instructions on how to submit their own comments by the June 25, 2007 deadline.

The Hindu American Foundation is a non-profit 501(c)(3), non-partisan organization, promoting the Hindu and American ideals of understanding, tolerance and pluralism.