A priest from St. James Catholic Church in Searcy and St. Richard’s in Bald Knob is one of 13 “missionary priests” from the Diocese of Little Rock being affected by an immigration backlog due to changes and delays in U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Earlier this month, Father Polycarp Ssebbowa wrote to his parishioners of both parishes in the St. James church bulletin that “I will be leaving the parish at least temporarily, effective Feb. 6, as I await the renewal of my immigration status.”
“I will be residing at the North Little Rock Immaculate Conception Rectory, for the time being, until the issue can be resolved,” Ssebbowa wrote. “This same situation is impacting several priests within our diocese (and throughout the U.S.) who are not U.S. citizens.”
Deacon Matt Glover, chancellor for canonical affairs at the Diocese of Little Rock told The Arkansas Catholic for an article written by Associate Editor Aprille Hanson Spivey that “it’s not just our diocese. … In fact, several months ago we had a Zoom meeting with attorneys, civil attorneys throughout the country who work on religious immigration stuff to kind of brainstorm, ‘What are the problems you’re facing? What are the issues you’re facing? How do you approach this issue in your diocese? What have you done here?’ So it’s not just a problem in our diocese.
“It’s not anything that any of our priests are doing wrong, or not doing quickly enough,” he said. “It’s a problem completely across the board. And so you might have someone who’s able to be here legally, who has legal status, but their employment authorization document has expired, even though we have timely filed to renew it … there’s multiple ways in which someone might fall out of status and have to return or even if they’re here, they wouldn’t necessarily be authorized to work, and it puts them in a real limbo.”
Glover told Spivey that immigration document processing has become “hugely backlogged … to put it charitably” since 2017. Policy changes have added to the difficulty to get paperwork processed before a migrant worker’s legal status ends.
Religious workers come to the U.S. legally with an R1 visa and can work for five years. At the end of that period, they can either go back to their home country for a year and then return to the U.S. on a new R1 visa, or before that period runs out, can file paperwork to transition into being a “lawful permanent resident,” obtaining a green card, he said.
In other cases, if someone is already in the process of obtaining a green card, certain delayed steps in the process can cause their work authorization to be halted. Therefore, they cannot legally work in the U.S. during that time until their application is processed further.”
In Ssebbowa’s case, he was temporarily suspended from his role as pastor because of a delay in the renewal of his work authorization and in his green card approval. While he can remain in the U.S., he is unable to work.
Glover said Father Ssebbowa, a native of Uganda with the Diocese of Kasana-Luweeno, still has his priestly faculties and so is able to celebrate Mass and other sacraments, but he cannot work as a pastor or perform those responsibilities or be paid. Pastor Father John Wakube and associate pastor Father Ben Riley will cover Masses in Searcy and Bald Knob, as well as funerals and emergency calls.
“We adjusted a number of things. There are some things we can postpone, for example school visits, we can meet the kids in the church” for school Mass instead of taking the time to go to the school, Wakube told Spivey, adding “I have no problem helping.”
While the diocese is hopeful Ssebbowa’s immigration case continues to proceed in a timely manner, there is no clear indication of how long it will be before he can be reinstated as pastor, Spivey wrote. It also is unclear how many of the 13 extern missionary priests with pending immigration cases could be impacted.
“It’s hard to say. USCIS has started to look at implementing certain changes, which would make it potentially less problematic, minimize the kinds of disruptions that we’ve been seeing lately, but government moves slow,” Glover said. “So it could be awhile before we see those changes actually implemented. Until those changes are implemented, this is kind of the new normal for the next several years I would say. It’s just unfortunate.”
Glover said losing more priests could impact parishes having access to the sacraments or having to cut down on certain missions or activities.
“It can create this sequence of events where there’s real instability, not just within leadership of a parish, but just the priestly ministry, the spiritual ministry to the people of a parish,” Glover said.
St. James parishioner Bill Morton told The Daily Citizen believes the USCIS’ immigration backlog is “pretty much an internal thing. I think it can happen more than it does. I think right now the thing that has it so screwed up is people coming from the south, that’s all; so they are just busy as heck, and some of these guys just get stuck. I think if anybody would have had their paperwork wrong in the past, it wouldn’t take but just a few minutes to clean it up and nowadays there’s no one there to do it because they’re doing all that other crap.”
The majority of this article was reprinted with permission from The Arkansas Catholic. Staff writer Greg Geary also contributed.