HomeTop StoriesReligious workers face an immigration backlog in the US

Religious workers face an immigration backlog in the US

Andrés Arenas has been working for more than four years as spiritual director and musical director at Iglesia Vida Nueva, a Pentecostal church in West Tampa, where the congregation consists mainly of families from Latin America.

In 2019, Arenas came from Bucaramanga, north-central Colombia, accompanied by his wife, to support this church and contribute to its growth. Participants meet three times a week to pray, lift their voices in songs of praise and share stories of faith in the building at 610 W. Waters Ave. Arenas also manages a group of about 50 church members who live in Zephyrhills and hold smaller prayer meetings in private houses.

“We’re like one big family,” said Arenas, 27. “That’s the most important thing.”

But Arenas isn’t sure how much longer he can stay with the council.

His R-1 visa, which is granted for up to five years to foreign-born religious workers, expires in December. Two years ago he applied for permanent residence, but his request was not processed.

This is due to a backlog in applying for a permanent residence permit. The approval process for applications for people who already have visas in the category known as employment-based fourth preference (EB-4) used to take about 18 months. The government awards 10,000 green cards annually for the EB-4 category, which includes foreign-born religious workers, former U.S. government officials, translators and certain broadcasters.

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But some petitions filed as early as January 2019 are still awaiting approval, and the waiting list could now stretch for years, according to the Evangelical Immigration Table, a coalition of evangelical denominations and organizations that advocate for immigration reform.

That’s at least in part because immigration authorities last year added another group of immigrants to the EB-4 category: minors from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras who are listed as “special immigrant youth” because they have been abandoned have been abandoned, abused or neglected by a parent.

“Both Congress and the State Department must act now to eliminate unnecessarily long visa processing backlogs,” said Galen Carey, vice president of government relations with the National Association of Evangelicals. He said it is tragic when spiritual leaders who serve in churches and communities have to leave the country and give up their ministries because of “bureaucratic delays.”

“For years we have sent missionaries abroad to plant churches; now many of these churches are returning the favor by sending workers to help us,” Carey said.

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Religious workers aren’t the only ones affected by delays. According to CATO Institute, a Washington DC-based libertarian think tank, the employment-based green card backlog reached a new record of 1.8 million cases in 2023.

It is causing some churches to reconsider their plans to recruit faith leaders from abroad.

That includes Pastor David Cantillo, the leader of Iglesia Tampa Bay Para Cristo, located at 1110 E. 139th Ave. in Tampa.

“There are too many problems in the process and they are taking too long,” Castillo said.

If nothing changes, Arenas, his wife and their three-year-old daughter, who was born in the US, will have to return to Colombia and stay there for at least a year, leaving the congregation of more than 300 people behind. After a year, he may be eligible to renew his visa and return to the US with his family.

Experts say as many as 33,000 religious workers are in line for permanent legal status, with about 25% coming from Latin America, according to estimates based on State Department data. A year ago, more than 100,000 minors with “special immigrant youth” status were waiting to obtain a green card, according to a report by The National Immigration Project and Tulane Law’s Immigrant Rights Clinic.

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Omar Angel Perez, director of immigrant justice at Faith in Action, a nonprofit that works with immigrant and minority communities, said the backlog is a symptom of a broken system that “devalues ​​humanity.”

“It is high time for congressional leaders to fix this so that people like foreign-born religious workers, who are an invaluable part of our society, are not left in a volatile situation,” Perez said.

Arenas is still hoping for good news before the end of the year. He doesn’t want to disappoint his community and friends, he said, who are unaware of his legal troubles. Only church leaders are aware of the situation, but they feel powerless to do much about it, Arenas said.

Two years ago, he and his wife Ana, 23, bought a house in Zephyrhills, thinking they had a promising future. But now that he thinks about the future, he gets worried, he said.

“My work and my life are in America,” Arenas said. ‘I don’t know what to do. But we have confidence – a lot of confidence.”

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