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News / Nation & World

Many foreign-born clergy could be ousted from U.S.

Change in green card processing took place in March

By GIOVANNA DELL’ORTO, Associated Press
Published: September 29, 2023, 6:46pm

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 this 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.”

Green card queues

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.

Attorneys estimate that 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.