I recently read an article stating that the Diocese of Burlington in Vermont will soon lose four priests due to delays in the immigration system. The renewal process for the Religious Worker Visa for these priests has taken so long, that they will soon lose their authorization to work in the United States. The paperwork was filed on time, but between COVID closures and an overburdened (and inefficient) system, time has run out for the priests. Three are Filipino and one is Nigerian.
I am very familiar with Religious Worker Visas because I assist foreign priests and seminarians in my Diocese. Currently, we have three priests who have been unable to travel home because the U.S. Consulate in their respective countries is closed due to COVID. If they travel abroad, they would be unable to finalize the visa process which would allow them to return to the U.S. The priests are allowed to work in the U.S. because they entered as seminary students, and we were able to adjust their status from a student to a religious worker before ordination to the priesthood.
The system is complex, and expensive. It costs the Diocese well over $3,000 to process a Religious Worker Visa. Recently due to the closures of U.S. Consulates abroad, we had to re-apply for two visas (and of course pay fees again).
The news article I read on a Catholic Facebook page had comments from the general public that were so out of line that I was compelled to comment. I read things such as:
“Just have them go south and walk back across the border”
“The law is for everyone”
“Tell them to come as illegal immigrants and for sure they will stay”
“Fly these Padres down to Mexico and have them walk across the border”
I responded: “the smart comments reveal such ignorance of our immigration system and the challenges we face with it. I work with all the priests on a religious visa in my diocese and with our foreign seminarians. Rather than making snarky comments, we should be grateful that we have priests willing to leave their families and cultures behind to serve here in our local church.”
So many seem to be experts on immigration law, yet the words of these many people reveal there is little understanding of the processes that are in place, and the burdensome nature of the system. Talk about immigration should be left to immigration lawyers and those who see the effects of the current situation – rather than politicians who use the topic for political gain.
The immigration debate affects individual lives, including our ability to minister to the People of God in the Church.
In the Diocese of Savannah, we have at least 10 priests with a Religious Worker Visa. We keep track of everything, and do our best to provide them the assistance they need in regards to their immigration status. If we suddenly lost our Religious Worker Visa priests as the Diocese of Burlington has, we would lose 10% of our presbyterate!
Picture is mine, all rights reserved. Priests (including me) in the sacristy of Saint Peter Basilica, Vatican City, 2011.