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Workers Doing Good Works

Religious denominations and organizations, especially those with members overseas, often need to hire foreign employees for work based in the United States. Before 1990, lay workers doing religious work here could get nonimmigrant visas only if they fit certain categories, and then only for a limited period. This often made it difficult for organizations to get the people they needed.

In an effort to address the problem, Rep. Lamar Smith (R) of Texas and Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts in 1990 sponsored a bill that created a special immigrant-visa category for religious workers. Under the law, up to 5,000 people a year can obtain visas if they are bona fide members of the religious organization they are coming to work for.

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The workers include instructors, cantors, lay pastors, monks, nuns, and seminarians. They provide a host of services, including care of the sick, social services for the homeless, youth work, family and individual counseling, and religious instruction. They are especially helpful in ministering to immigrants unfamiliar with American culture or who don't speak English.

The program carried a three-year expiration date. It has been renewed twice and is now set to end on Sept. 30, 2000. Many religious groups are asking Congress to make the program permanent. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D) of California, who sits on the House immigration subcommittee, has introduced a bill that would do just that.

Religious workers provide valuable services. Making the program permanent would eliminate the need to revisit the issue every three years. It would give religious-worker visas the same status as other categories. It would end religious groups' uncertainty about the program and aid their long-term planning.

We urge Congress to act.

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