US visa changes could block Israelis

American Jews worried special program may leave vital religious jobs unfilled.

el al plane 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
el al plane 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
American Jewish organizations are worried that changes to a special visa program could prevent hundreds of Israelis from coming to the US and leave vital religious jobs unfilled. The religious workers visa program allows American synagogues, kosher slaughter houses and, most commonly, Jewish schools to hire Israelis, as well as Jews from other countries. They fill positions for which Jewish institutions have trouble retaining sufficient numbers of Americans, generally because there aren't enough such workers here, because Americans don't want to relocate to small Jewish communities in remote places, or because workers receive specialized training abroad. In 2006, more than 500 Israelis received work permits through the program, more than any other country except South Korea. It was set up to allow nonprofit religious institutions avoid some of the burdensome time and financial requirements that for-profit businesses face to get visas for their foreign employees. But US government reviews beginning in 1999 found that a third of the total visa requests for the program were fraudulent, having been filed for jobs or institutions that didn't exist. The Department of Homeland Security has written new regulations to eliminate the widespread fraud. "If you have a 33-percent fraud rate in some program, that's serious," said a spokeswoman from Homeland Security's United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. "You could have a threat of one sort or another" from a lax program that could be exploited by terrorists and other dangerous people who want to enter the country, she said. "We want to maintain the integrity of that program," she said of the rationale for the new regulations. "It's important, and we want to make sure it remains that way." But even without the new regulations in place, advocates said they were seeing considerable delays, requests for documents that could not be obtained, and other barriers that made them fear the program would soon be unusable. "We want to make sure the Jewish community can continue to use this program, because in many ways we rely on it," said Melanie Nezer, the immigration policy counsel at the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society in Washington. "We're concerned that what many of these proposed regulations do is close the door." The new requirements and definitions make applications "so complex and onerous, it's going to be difficult for anyone to use the program," she said. "Delays have already started. It seems like the program is frozen already." Before the new proposals were made this spring, foreigners could apply for the visa themselves, needing only to show up at an American consulate with a few documents on the position and organization, as well as their own history of adherence to the faith, according to USCIS. Under the new regulations, however, all applications will have to be filed by the employer from the US, the government will vigorously review the documentation and make site visits to the institutions, and the maximum length of the work visa will be cut from five to three years, according to the USCIS spokeswoman. "It's more than just the proposed regulations. It's a whole shift in the attitude toward this program," Nezer said of the changes. "The whole attitude is to make it hard, and make it harder." Adjudicators were now "trying to throw the kitchen sink at somebody and see if something comes up that will be an excuse to deny an application," she said. In addition to delays, she said she had seen requests for documents that had already been submitted and for requirements certain Jewish employers couldn't meet. She pointed to the need for approval from an "ecclesiastical" governing body for the hiring of Hebrew school teachers. "It's not a hierarchical structure," she said of Judaism and Jewish instruction. "Where would you go for that?" She also charged the US immigration authorities had taken to sending out form letters without reviewing the specifics of each case, saying that she'd received missives referring to the "church" and "ministers" despite having submitted applications on behalf of Jewish institutions. Any document not provided could be an excuse for refusing a visa, she said. A coalition of religious groups - including representatives of Christian, Jewish and Hindu organizations - acknowledged the need to fight fraud in a recent letter to the Bush administration protesting the new regulations. "It is a vital goal for USCIS to protect against fraud and deception," the coalition wrote. "Yet we urge USCIS not to make changes that would seriously undermine the original purpose of the program." They stressed the constitutional issues that could arise if the program were limited. "Regulations that would preclude our organizations from bringing foreign religious workers to our communities - particularly those that are small and remote - would effectively amount to interference with the free exercise of religion," the letter said. Nezer voiced concern that congregations would be unable to hire the rabbis of their choice because those individuals weren't American. Aside from security concerns, she said, "the government should let religious communities decide for themselves who should lead them in prayer, and that's what the religious workers visa program is about."