It remains an open question whether Congress will take up immigration reform this year. With thorny issues such as a pathway to citizenship and border security to navigate, leaders may avoid the issue altogether. However, there is one issue that members from both sides of the aisle can and should agree upon: making the Religious Worker visa program permanent.
The Religious Worker visa program is an invaluable tool to help the American religious community support itself. It allows religious workers to secure temporary visas to work in the United States. Members of all religious faiths, including Christians, Hindus, Jains, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, and Sikhs, use the visa program to secure access to trained religious workers.
Unfortunately, this vital provision is scheduled to sunset in September 2015. This sunset requirement, originally inserted to help ensure transparency in the program, has increasingly become a bureaucratic nightmare for houses of worship. While the program has been continually renewed since its inception in 1990, each new sunset date raises the risk of the program’s expiration. For the religious groups that depend on the visa, they are forced to hope for Congressional action.
The program’s expiration would cripple many houses of worship, who would be forced to say goodbye to their religious workers. The program’s sunset would be particularly devastating to the Hindu community as Hindus do not have seminaries or other training facilities for religious workers in America. Without the Religious Worker visa program, Hindus would be forced to rely entirely on volunteers from the community to continue running their temples.
Fortunately, members of both parties are coming together to protect this program. In the comprehensive immigration package passed by the Senate last June, lawmakers included a provision repealing the sunset from the nonminister provision. This legislation is mirrored in H.R. 4460, the Freedom of Faith Act, introduced by Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) with the support of a diverse group of faith leaders, including the Hindu American Foundation.
The Freedom of Faith Act, which has bipartisan and interfaith support, does not seek to expand the visa program or change it in any way. Instead, it merely removes the inefficient requirement of continual reauthorization, and thus, reduces an unnecessary burden on Congress, while protecting the religious community from being used as a political pawn in the immigration debate.
The Religious Worker visa program is not one that will get a lot of press, or attract a lot of attention. That does not mean, however, that it is not an important part of the discussion. Hopefully, as Congress debates immigration reform, the Freedom of Faith Act will be a part of that debate. After all, in this contentious climate, protecting religious liberty is an issue that both parties can agree upon.
Voruganti is associate director of Public Policy for the Hindu American Foundation, a nonprofit organization advocating on behalf of the Hindu American community.