- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 24, 2009

SEATTLE (AP) - A federal judge has struck down a long-standing government policy that made it tougher for religious workers from other countries to remain in the United States.

Chief U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik wrote in an order issued Tuesday that the policy was at odds with the intent of Congress.

Under the Department of Homeland Security’s policy, religious workers who came to the U.S. on a typical five-year temporary visa were not allowed to file for permanent residency _ their green card _ until a separate visa petition by their employer had been approved.

The problem was that it frequently took a long time for the government to approve those visa petitions _ and by the time it did, the religious workers had left the country because their temporary visas had expired.

“They had to return home, leaving behind their religious work and congregations,” said Seattle attorney Robert Gibbs, who represents the workers in the class-action case.

Workers in other categories, such as aerospace and technology, are allowed to file for permanent residency before, not after, their employer’s visa petition is approved, and can remain in the country while their application is pending. That amounted to discrimination against religious workers, Gibbs argued.

Religious organizations bring foreign workers into the U.S. for a variety of reasons. Native speakers are sometimes needed to communicate with immigrant populations, and expertise in certain traditions can be hard to find in the United States. The Roman Catholic Church has brought in many priests from other countries to replenish its U.S. ranks.

In court documents, Rodger Pitcairn, an adjudications officer with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said religious workers were singled out by the policy because of the “historically high incidence of fraudulent petitions” filed by religious workers.

Gibbs called that laughable.

“They’re saying priests, nuns and rabbis are more likely to be fraudsters than everyone else, which is absurd when you think about it,” he said.

Religious workers from many faiths _ Catholic, Ukrainian orthodox, evangelical Christian, Buddhist and Hindu, among others _ filed affidavits with the court last year saying they feared they would have to return to their home countries unless the policy was changed.

Lasnik told lawyers on both sides to try to agree on a new policy consistent with his order within 20 days.

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