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Congress extends visa program for religious workers

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WASHINGTON (JTA) — The U.S. Congress extended a visa program for religious workers for three years.

The Religious Worker Visa Program, which is particularly important to small Jewish communities in remote areas, makes available up to 5,000 permanent immigrant visas each year for religious workers in various denominations.

The small Jewish communities often find it difficult to fill positions and rely on the visas to bring in rabbis, cantors, kosher butchers, Hebrew school teachers and other religious workers.

The legislation also includes a provision to end the "widow penalty," so that recently married immigrants whose citizen spouses die before their green-card paperwork is processed will no longer be subject to automatic deportation. It was enacted as part of the Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Committee Report, which in the last two weeks has been passed in the Senate and the House of Representatives. President Obama is expected to sign the measure into law.

The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society hailed the bill’s passage.

"This is an important step in ensuring that the Jewish community can keep the dedicated and experienced teachers and other foreign religious workers that we rely on," said Gideon Aronoff, president and CEO of HIAS, noting the leadership of Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Rep. Zoe Lofgren (R-Calif.).

The bill extends the program, which began in 1990, through September 2012.

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