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U.S. Senate Moves to Assure Residency for Religious Workers

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The U.S. Senate has voted to amend U.S. immigration law to grant permanent residence status for foreign workers who come to this country for religious activities.

If passed by the House of Representatives and signed into law, the Religious Workers Act would assure that yeshiva teachers, mohels, cantors, ritual slaughterers and other religious functionaries can continue to live and work in the United States on a permanent basis.

Religious groups, including Agudath Israel of America, which represents the fervently Orthodox, had urged lawmakers at a hearing of the Senate Judiciary immigration subcommittee to extend a law, set to expire at the end of the month, that grants permanent U.S. residency status to religious workers from abroad.

Under the Immigration Act of 1990, 10,000 visas can be set aside each year for “special immigrants,” with up to 5,000 of them available to religious ministers.

At issue here are the remaining 5,000 visas that can be awarded to foreign religious workers seeking to come to the United States.

The law has permitted religious instructors, counselors, missionaries and others to live and work in the United States under the sponsorship of a religious organization or institution that seeks to employ them to provide religious services to its community.

Jewish day schools catering to Russian immigrants, for example, often recruit Russian teachers and other religious functionaries who understand Russian culture and family life, according to Agudah officials.

David Grunblatt, an immigration law expert with Agudath Israel, urged the Senate panel to make it easier for religious workers to remain here.

“We must not shut the doors, certainly to those who helped to enrich us so much spiritually and culturally,” he said.

Sen. Spencer Abraham (R-Mich.) sponsored the legislation as a tribute to Mother Teresa, who wrote to him weeks before her death urging Congress to extend the law. He said he hoped the legislation “will be remembered as part of her extraordinary legacy.”

“Religious workers play an important role in our nation’s charities, and I am pleased that with Senate passage of this legislation, these individuals are one step closer to being able to continue their philanthropic efforts on a permanent basis,” Abraham said.

The bill has yet to be taken up by the House, where its fate remains uncertain.

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