Religious workers’ visas delayed by immigration backlogs

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, July 19, 2023

Religious workers’ visas delayed by immigration backlogs

Father Daniel Villalobos has served as associate pastor of St. Michael Parish in Orland Park since he was ordained in 2021. Before that, he studied at the University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary.
Sister Claudia Carrillo, principal at Annunciation School, speaks to students following the stations of the cross on March 31, 2023, at Our Lady of Nazareth Parish, 11128 S. Ave. G. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Cardinal Cupich lays his hands on Daniel Villalobos, 34, from Bogotá, Colombia, during the ordination rite on May 15, 2021, at Holy Name Cathedral. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

Father Daniel Villalobos has served as associate pastor of St. Michael Parish in Orland Park since he was ordained in 2021. Before that, he studied at the University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary.

His plan, now that he has two years of experience as a priest, was to apply this year for permanent residency under a visa category that includes religious workers. But the process has hit a snag.

The problem is that the temporary religious worker visa he has now can last no longer than five years, and his eligibility will run out in 2026. But the backlog for the permanent residency visas priests and other religious workers can get means his application likely won’t be processed for another two years after that.

The backlog is new this year, said Olga Rojas, immigration counsel for the Archdiocese of Chicago. It was created in April, when the state department changed the way it calculates quotas for the kind of permanent residency visas that religious workers can get.

Rojas, who works with priests, religious sisters and brothers and other religious workers who want to come and minister in the archdiocese, said some people might have to leave the United States for a year, then reapply for a new temporary visa, while they wait for their applications for permanent residency to be processed.

Some cases might be expedited, at the discretion of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Others might be able to qualify for other types of visas, but they generally are more expensive and come with their own extra conditions.

Villalobos, a native of Colombia, and Rojas both are calling on Catholics to advocate for changes to the system to allow religious workers to get permission to continue their ministries without interruption.

“You have to leave your community,” Villalobos said, “sometimes leave parishes without a priest.”

Rojas, who has worked with the archdiocese for 15 years, explained that most priests and women and men religious come to the archdiocese on the same temporary visa Villalobos is on now.

If they plan to continue to minister in the United States, they apply for permanent resident status. For such status, the State Department lists religious workers in a category that also includes people who have worked for the United States abroad, employees of international organizations, some broadcasters and “special immigrant juveniles,” including children who come to the United States without being accompanied by a parent or guardian, among others.

A little less than 10,000 visas in that category are issued each year, and there are also quotas by country, meaning that immigrants from China, India, Mexico and the Philippines — all countries that send many immigrants to the United States — have had longer wait times for years, Rojas explained.

The difficulty came with a change in the way immigrants from the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala are counted. Before April, they were counted as one country and faced backlogs; now that is not the case, but putting immigrants from those countries back into the pool with everyone else increased the delay in processing visa applications for everybody.

As of the beginning of July, the State Department was not processing the applications of people who filed their paperwork after Sept. 1, 2018, according to the State Department’s visa bulletin.

Workers who filed their applications for permanent residency, or green cards, before the State Department made the switch will be allowed to stay in the United States until their applications are processed, but they must keep renewing work and travel permits while they do so, according to the State Department. 

But those permits also have backlogs and delays, meaning, for example, that one priest was not able to get permission to travel to his home country to celebrate his father’s funeral Mass, and another was not able to work the week of Christmas because his work permit was delayed, Rojas said

Rojas, the daughter of Cuban and Mexican immigrants, said the work is important to her.

She will be honored by the Catholic Lawyers Guild of Chicago with a distinguished service award at its annual Red Mass at Holy Name Cathedral on Oct. 4, and she participates in a working group on religious worker visas for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, and recently was part of a panel presenting at the association’s annual meeting on what to do when an immigration case gets stuck.

Mostly, she said, what lawyers can do is advocate with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, asking for expedited processing or other relief.

“You start with the 1-800 number,” she said. “And you know you’ll be on hold, so you work while you’re waiting.”

If that doesn’t work, attorneys can contact the offices of representatives and senators and ask them to intervene, something she might have to do more often now.

At the same time, Rojas said, Catholics can join members of AILA in advocating for a bill that would put special immigrant juveniles into their own visa category, the Protect Vulnerable Immigrant Youth Act. That step could help reduce the delays both for vulnerable minors and for everyone else in the employment-based category that includes religious workers.

Villalobos said Rojas and others in her office have been extremely helpful in keeping them informed and on track.

“They are very thorough,” he said. “There is a lot of paperwork.”

Sister Claudia Carrillo, a Daughter of Mary Immaculate of Guadalupe, said the office helped her not only when she arrived in Chicago in the summer of 2001, but through the process of getting her permanent residency and, in 2021, U.S. citizenship.

Sister Claudia, now principal of Annunciata School, said it all worked out for her even though she spent several of the intervening years working in schools her community operates in her native Mexico, and in the leadership of her province.

Not all dioceses offer the same support that Sister Claudia, Villalobos and others have received from Rojas and other archdiocesan staff, Sister Claudia said, adding that she has worked to help sisters from her congregation who are ministering in other dioceses.

Sister Claudia, like Villalobos, said she is committed to serving the people of the archdiocese.

“As a sister, I have a commitment and a promise to God that I’m going to go anywhere I’m sent to,” she said. “But as a human being, I have a special love for the U.S. and the people here. I have met so many people who have touched my life and been part of my life. If my superiors tell me I have to go, I’ll go, but if they ask what I want, I’ll them I want to stay here.”



  • immigration

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