Religious workers face immigration, health care challenges

Demonstrators attend a rally calling for the passage of a clean Dream Act with no conditions included near the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Sept. 26. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

A new White House administration has meant new realities for women religious in almost every aspect of immigration, whether it is religious worker visas or churches helping undocumented persons, an immigration attorney says.

Minyoung Ohm, a staff attorney in the Religious Immigration Services section of Catholic Legal Immigration Network, said some of the changes have been formalized in new rules, and others are changes in enforcement practices.

"For example, a priest with a valid visa was held for three hours for secondary inspection at the airport for no reason. He had a valid visa," Ohm said. Church officials in San Antonio said that Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers "will just come knock on the door and see if there are any undocumented people in the parish."

She said a client who is in the United States on a valid religious worker visa wants to go home to visit, but is afraid she will not be allowed to come back if she does.

Ohm made her remarks on Nov. 2 to attendees at the Resource Center for Religious Institutes' National Conference in St. Louis. Nearly 600 sisters, priests, brothers and lay people are attending the conference, which runs from Oct. 31 to Nov. 3.

Ohm cautioned attendees that it is illegal to harbor undocumented immigrants, with courts saying "harboring" can range from concealment to simply sheltering. Harboring could also make the immigrants' presence in the United States substantially easier or less difficult.

Minyoung Ohm, a staff attorney in the Religious Immigration Services section of Catholic Legal Immigration Network, speaks to attendees at the Resource Center for Religious Institutes' National Conference Nov. 2 in St. Louis. (GSR Photo / Dan Stockman)

There is an exemption for religious organizations that meet certain criteria, but the undocumented immigrant must be a minister or a missionary. And the exemption only applies to legal sanctions against the church or ministry.

"So that helps the religious organization, but it doesn't really help the undocumented person who is still subject to deportation," Ohm said.

Anyone convicted of harboring an undocumented person can be fined, though she said she has never heard of fines levied on a religious organization.

There have not been any official changes to the temporary religious worker visa program, Ohm said, but there have been reports of visa holders attempting to enter the country being required to show officials their social media accounts to verify they are religious workers. Those visas are for 30 months and can be renewed once.

The non-minister religious worker visa, meanwhile, allows religious workers who are not priests or pastors to stay here for the years or decades needed for formation or on long-term assignment. That program has a sunset provision and must be periodically renewed by Congress. It was set to expire Sept. 30, Ohm said, but was extended to Dec. 8 by a continuing resolution. If it is not renewed, the visas already issued would not be affected, but no new ones could be issued.

One attendee said another unofficial change that may be well intentioned can cause problems for religious: Her congregation has found that the prettier its novices are, the more difficult it is to have their visas approved. That provoked murmurs in the crowd until she explained consulate officials fear the young women may be part of a human trafficking ring.

Because of stepped-up enforcement, and reports of even immigrants who have legal status being detained, Ohm encouraged attendees to ensure all foreign workers keep their proof of immigration status — called an I-94 — with them at all times.

Holy Cross Sr. Geraldine Hoyler discusses healthcare changes at the Resource Center for Religious Institutes' National Conference Nov. 2 in St. Louis. (GSR Photo / Dan Stockman)

Health care laws affect religious workers

In another session, Holy Cross Sr. Geraldine Hoyler discussed the implications of congressional efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Though those efforts have failed so far, she said, they show what some members of Congress will do if they are able. Hoyler is a religious institute consultant at Christian Brothers Services.

"I think about healthcare in this country like a balloon filled with Jell-O," Hoyler said. "You poke it over here, it comes out over there. You give something to someone over here, you take it away from someone over there."

In addition to congressional attempts to change healthcare insurance law, the Trump administration is making changes in how the system is administered, often costing taxpayers more than no changes had been made.

For example, Hoyler said, the subsidies to insurance companies to keep premiums and deductibles low for poorer people are ending. But the change was announced before rates were set, so insurance companies raised the prices of the plans the government uses as benchmarks for reimbursement. The result, she said, is the government will pay nearly $200 million more in reimbursements than if it would have kept paying the subsidies.

The key in all of this, Hoyle said, is to remember that healthcare is expensive and the national healthcare cost doesn't change when you make changes — it just changes who pays for it and how.

"It's not like this is rocket science," she said. "The money has to come from someplace."

[Dan Stockman is national correspondent for Global Sisters Report. Follow him on Twitter @DanStockman or on Facebook.]