Thursday, April 19, 2007

Federal immigration officials, trying to get a handle on a years-old problem of rampant fraud among religious worker visa applications, proposed new rules yesterday that would require the government to visit churches or other religious groups to make sure they really exist.

A study by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has shown one in every three applications for a religious worker visa is fraudulent, and a Government Accountability Office report said there’s been at least “one case where law enforcement had identified an applicant as a suspected terrorist.”

Some workers would never show up for their jobs, while other times investigators would find the churches themselves didn’t exist.

“We understand that we have a serious problem of fraud in our religious workers program,” said Jonathan Scharfen, deputy director of USCIS.

Under the new rules a religious worker would have to be sponsored, rather than being able to petition for entry on his own, and an investigator would have to visit the sponsoring religious group to make sure it was legitimate. Also, the institution would have to submit a W-2 form to prove the worker is actually employed at the end of the first year, and again after the third year.

But the new rules also expand definitions to make it easier to prove a worker is qualified to do the work he or she is brought here for.

The public will have 60 days to comment on the proposed rules, and the agency will then produce a final version. Agency officials said they want to hear from those affected to make sure they did not inadvertently block legitimate workers.

USCIS is also in the middle of writing a final rule for new fees for almost all visa applications and naturalized citizenship, which has irked some members of Congress, but yesterday agency officials said the increases will help pay for security improvements such as the site visits.

“You need this kind of funding if you want to see if the institution exists before you grant the benefit. You need to get out there and see,” said Janis Sposato, an associate director at the agency who heads the fraud unit.

Kevin Appleby, director of migration and refugee policy for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said they support anti-fraud efforts, and said some of the changes such as church site visits will not be burdensome.

But he said sometimes the rules can be too restrictive and don’t take into account the nature of religious work, which he said often doesn’t fit the usual definitions of work.

“For us, what it does is it creates more burdens in that we have to provide more evidence someone’s coming in to do what the stated purpose is,” he said. “This is where church meets state and they don’t both understand each other.”

Jen Smyers, who works on immigration and refugee policy for Church World Service, said the broader definitions will help, but said the earlier one-year time frame will be a burden.

“We are concerned this might inhibit people who are truly doing the work from being able to continue with their service in the United States,” she said.

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