National Data | Homeland Security's Misplaced Faith in Religious Visas
Print Friendly and PDF

Tony Blair knows it. Joe Guzzardi knows it. Most Americans feel it's true: Muslim clerics are more likely to promote terrorist activity than any other immigrant group living in western countries.

Yet Imams coming to these shores are treated no differently than foreign-born priests, Buddhist monks, or Rabbis – all of whom enter the country on R-1 visas for religious workers. Homeland Security treats them all as if they were the lowest of threats, waiving fingerprinting and other security procedures when airport lines are too long. [Paul Sperry, Infiltration]

Since 9/11 religious workers and their family members have entered in record numbers: (Table 1)

  • In 2000: 19,272
  • In 2001: 21,526
  • In 2002: 24,463
  • In 2004: 28,014

Although the government does not keep statistics on R-1 visas by faith, it does track the country of citizenship. Here are the figures for R-1 workers admitted in 2004: (Table 2)

  • Non-Moslem countries: 20,778
  • Moslem countries: 793
  • India: 1,820 (Largest source country)
  • Mexico:1,814  (2nd largest)
  • Canada: 1,425 (3rd largest)

Rounding out the top ten source countries are the U.K., Korea, Israel, Japan, Philippines, Argentina, and Colombia.  

It's clear that the overwhelming number of R-1 visas have gone to foreign-born Christian (primarily Catholic), Jewish, and Asian religious workers. The Asians might legitimately claim to need immigrants to sustain their religious traditions. For churches and synagogues, however, the visas represent easy absolution for their inability to persuade U.S. natives to pursue religious careers.

Legitimate or not, the sheer volume of R-1 entrants has overwhelmed Homeland Security's ability to properly vet them. Americans concerned about the war on terrorism will be particularly alarmed at the trend of religious workers from the Middle-east and heavily Moslem countries: (Table 3):

  • Egypt: 108 in 2004; 70 in 2003
  • Indonesia: 60 in 2004; 26 in 1999
  • Saudi Arabia: 10 in 2004; 5 in 2003
  • Israel: 905 in 2004; 737 in 2003
  • Iran: 9 in 2004; 5 in 2003

R-1 visas were created as a temporary expedient for what was considered a short run shortage. They are still "temporary" visas, limiting the holder to a 2 year stint in the U.S. In reality, most visa holders have no intention of going home.

Perhaps the most infamous R-1 abuser was Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman, the Egyptian cleric who masterminded the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. This June two R-1 visa recipients running a Muslim "religious school" in Lodi, California were accused of sending their "graduates" to Al Qaeda training camps in Pakistan. [See Joe Guzzardi's column of June 17, 2005]   

Al Qaeda sleeper cells are financed in part by millions of dollars raised by an extensive network of bogus religious charities and foundations, according to the FBI and other federal authorities. Mosques are regularly used as safe havens for potential terrorists.  

From its inception the R-1 visa program has been riddled with fraud. In 1997 the State Department wrote Congressman Lamar Smith, warning that the Department had:

"…uncovered a troubling number of scams, both individual and organized, seeking to exploit this category to obtain immigration benefits illegally….[Most] problematic are those cases that involve organized fraud rings in which documents of religious institutions in the U.S. are fabricated, or when the applicant colludes with a member of a religious institution to misrepresent either his or her qualifications, or the position to which the applicant is destined." [Statement of Chairman Lamar Smith, Oversight Hearing on Evaluating the Religious Worker Visa Program, Subcommittee on Immigration and Claims House Judiciary Committee, June 29, 2000.]

A subsequent GAO report found that neither INS nor State Department officials were confident that their screening process was good at identifying bogus applicants or sponsoring organizations. [VISA ISSUANCE: Issues Concerning The Religious Visa Program, March 1999 (PDF)]

In 2000 Congress debated whether to allow the sunset provisions in the original R-1 legislation to take effect. Instead it passed the (I kid you not) "Mother Teresa Religious Workers Act," extending the visa.

That was before 9/11.

Could things be even worse today?  Definitely. And pressure to expand the R-1 program further will likely come from Christians and Jews more than from Moslems.

Edwin S. Rubenstein (email him) is President of ESR Research Economic Consultants in Indianapolis.

Print Friendly and PDF