New visa rules hurt recruitment of foreign priests
By Jennifer Garza
May 30, 2010
With his gentle nature and easy laugh, the Rev. Jovito Rata was well-liked by his parishioners at Our Lady of Mercy Parish in Redding. The priest stunned churchgoers last year when he announced at Sunday Mass that he had three days to leave the country and return to the Philippines because of complications with his visa.
"God willing," he said tearfully, "I'll see you soon."
Fourteen months later, he has still not returned.
Rata and other foreign-born priests have long filled U.S. pulpits. But recent changes in requirements for religious visas are making that harder to do, say some church leaders. Now, citing increased costs and difficulty obtaining visas, some will no longer actively recruit clerics from other countries.
Bishop Jaime Soto, the spiritual leader of the Sacramento region's 900,000 Catholics, said last week that he has stopped a long-standing diocesan practice of seeking priests outside the United States.
"It's alarming how difficult it is for us to bring over priests who are willing to serve here," said Soto. "The current immigration protocol handicaps our ability to find ministers."
Soto is chairman of the board of CLINIC, a national Catholic network of legal immigration service providers. He has heard other Catholic leaders express similar sentiments.
"There is a general frustration among the bishops about how difficult the immigration process has become," he said. "As bishops we have to weigh the need for clergy against the increasing costs and difficulties of bringing them in."
Out of 168 priests serving in active ministry in the Sacramento Diocese, 90 were born in other countries. (Ireland tops the list with 20.) Soto said he will consider any foreign priest who applies but will no longer recruit.
"I want to focus on developing more local priests," the bishop said, adding that the diocese is stepping up efforts to interest local men in the priesthood.
"The future health of the diocese depends on this," Soto said. "We just can't keep depending on international clergy."
The U.S. Catholic Church has a history of relying on priests from other countries. For years, the Sacramento Diocese has sent senior priests to other countries to recruit clergy. Recently, the need has become greater as the number of U.S.-born men entering the priesthood has fallen. With 65 million members, Catholics are the largest faith group in the country.
Religious visas were relatively easy to obtain a generation ago. Monsignor Michael Kiernan, rector of the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in downtown Sacramento, said the amount of paperwork required when he arrived here from Dublin, Ireland, in 1973 was minimal. "Back then, it was so easy," he said.
The rules for religious visas have changed significantly since then, most recently in 2008. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services now requires employers to submit a formal petition, in addition to an increased number of inspections, evaluations and verifications for religious visas.
"Instead of a one-step process, it is now a two-step process that is much more complicated," said Anne Marie Gibbons of CLINIC, which provides legal services to dioceses and religious orders throughout the country.
Immigration officials, citing abuse of religious visas, said the revisions were necessary. They are trying to prevent, for example, someone entering the country falsely claiming to be a religious worker.
"We had to make the changes to prevent fraud," said Sharon Rummery, public affairs director for the USCIS. "Fraudulent entries pose a danger to our country and nobody wants that."
Soto agrees. But he said the process has become complicated and costly for those following the rules.
The Sacramento Diocese spends between $150,000 and $200,000 a year on immigration costs. These include: obtaining R-1 visas and permanent residency (green cards); immigration lawyers and consultants; travel; and temporarily replacing priests who may have to return home for a year or more.
Keeping track of every priest's status can be difficult.
"We try to monitor where everyone is and we tell them (the priests) to stay on top of it," said the Rev. Brian Atienza, pastor of St. Joseph's Church in Auburn. "But it's not easy."
Atienza knows what it's like to deal with visa issues. He arrived from the Philippines in 1997 and later served as vocations director for the diocese. In that job, he helped other men navigate the process.
"It's something that a lot of them deal with and they're concerned," said Atienza, who kept a table tracking each man's status.
Atienza's own visa issues are over. Last year, he became a U.S. citizen. Diocesan officials encourage all priests to work toward obtaining citizenship.
Rata, now serving in Manila, does not blame anyone for his visa troubles. He said he is one of three diocesan priests sent home in the past couple of years.
"There's no one to blame; the rules just changed," he said on the phone from Holy Trinity Parish in Manila, where he is serving.
Rata arrived in the United States in 2001 and attended Mount Angel Seminary in Oregon. He was ordained in 2007, one of the "Magnificent Seven," a name given to them by church leaders because they were the largest group of new priests in Sacramento in 40 years.
If all goes according to plan – and if his paperwork is done correctly – Rata hopes to return to the Sacramento Diocese by the fall. He misses his parishioners, his work and his brother priests.
Despite being "stressed out" about his visa issues, Rata tries to keep everything in perspective. He sometimes laughs about it.
"My biggest fear is that when I get to heaven, St. Peter is going to ask, 'Can I see your visa?' "
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