COLUMBIA HEIGHTS, Minn. — For more than two hours on a Sunday afternoon, the Rev. Gustavo Castillo led the Pentecostal congregation he’s been growing in a Minneapolis suburb through prayer, scriptures, rousing music and sometimes tearful testimonials.
But it all may end soon. A sudden procedural change in how the federal government processes green cards for foreign-born religious workers, together with historic highs in numbers of illegal border crossers, means that thousands of clergy like him are losing the ability to remain in this country.
“We were right on the edge of becoming permanent residents, and boom, this changed,” Colombia-born Castillo said as his wife rocked their 7-month-old boy, a U.S. citizen by birth. “We have done everything correctly, from here onward we believe that God will work a miracle. We don’t have any other option.”
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To become permanent U.S. residents, which can eventually lead to citizenship, immigrants apply for green cards, generally through U.S. family members or employers. A limited number of green cards are available annually, set by Congress and separated into categories depending on the closeness of the family relationship or the skills needed in a job.
Citizens of countries with disproportionately high numbers of migrants are put in separate, often longer green card queues. Currently, the most backlogged category is for the married Mexican children of U.S. citizens — only applications filed before March 1998 are being processed.
For faith leaders, the line historically has been short enough to get a green card before their temporary work visas expired, attorneys say.
That changed in March. The State Department announced that for nearly seven years it had been placing in the wrong line tens of thousands of applications for neglected or abused minors from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, and would now start adding those to the general queue with the clergy. Since the mid-2010s, a surging number of youth from these countries have sought humanitarian green cards or asylum after illegally crossing into the U.S.
This change means that only applications filed before January 2019 are currently being processed, moving forward the Central American minors by a few months but giving clergy with expiring visas, like Castillo, no option but to leave their U.S. congregations behind.
“They’re doing everything they’re supposed to be doing and all of a sudden, they’re totally steamrolled,” said Matthew Curtis, an immigration attorney in New York City whose clients, like an Israeli rabbi and a South African music minister, are running out of time. “It’s like a bombshell on the system.”
Attorneys estimate so many people are now in the queue that the wait is at least a decade long, because only 10,000 of these green cards can be granted annually.
That’s likely to dissuade religious organizations from hiring foreign workers precisely when they’re most needed because of the growing demand for leaders of immigrant congregations who can speak languages other than English and understand other cultures.
“There’s a comfort to practice your religion in your native tongue, in someone close to your culture celebrating Mass,” said Olga Rojas, the Archdiocese of Chicago’s senior counsel for immigration. The U.S. Catholic Church has also turned to foreign priests to ease a shortage of local vocations.
Those from religious orders with vows of poverty, like Catholic nuns and Buddhist monks, are especially hard hit, because most other employment visa categories require employers to show they’re paying foreign workers prevailing wages. Since they’re getting no wages, they don’t qualify.
Across all faith traditions, there are few options for these workers to continue their U.S.-based ministry, attorneys say. At a minimum, they would need to go abroad for a year before being eligible for another temporary religious worker visa, and repeat that process, paying thousands in fees, throughout the decade — or for however long their green card application stays pending.
“A big concern is that leaving is not really viable. The church will replace the pastor or shut down, it’s too much instability,” said Calleigh McRaith, Castillo’s attorney in Minnesota.
Martin Valko, an immigration attorney in Dallas whose clients include imams and Methodist pastors, said many rely on their faith to stay hopeful.
But realistic options are so few that the American Immigration Lawyers Association and faith leaders, like Chicago’s Catholic cardinal and coalitions of evangelical pastors, have lobbied the Biden administration and Congress to fix the problem.
Administrative solutions could include allowing religious workers to at least file for their green cards, so they can get temporary work authorization like those in other queues awaiting permanent residence.
The most effective and immediate fix would be for Congress to remove from this category the vulnerable minors’ applications, attorneys say. Despite being humanitarian, they make up the vast majority of the queue they share with religious workers, said Lance Conklin, a Maryland attorney who co-chairs the lawyer association’s religious workers group.
“They shouldn’t be pitted against each other in competition for visas,” said Matthew Soerens, who leads the Evangelical Immigration Table, a national immigrant advocacy organization.