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The Church’s ‘other’ immigration problem

When Fr. Kenn Wandera came to the United States in 2015, he was a seminarian, hoping to become a priest for some of America’s most underserved Catholics. 

Fr. Kenn Wandera. Courtesy photo.

In his native Kenya, Wandera had heard about the Glenmary Home Missioners, a group of priests and brothers dedicated to serving rural parishes across the United States.

Glenmary was founded in the 1930s by U.S. priests who realized that Catholics in Appalachia and in the South were underserved, with not enough vocations to care for their small Catholic communities.

In more recent decades, Glenmary has recruited young men from East Africa and Latin America to join their ranks, urging them to commit their lives to the small Catholic communities in America’s mission territories.

Wandera was one of those young men. 

“I heard about Glenmary from people who had known that they come to Kenya to recruit young men, like myself, and so I just reached out to them, and got in contact with them, and went through a discernment process that took a number of years, really.”

The discernment took years because men who join Glenmary from other countries come to the U.S. to stay — at least that’s the idea. 

In Church terms, Glenmary is a society of apostolic life. Members live by the evangelical counsels, make a lifelong commitment to the community, and when they’re ordained, are incardinated in it. Wherever they come from, they come for life. 

And Wandera said that’s how he wanted it.

“I joined Glenmary back in 2015, and I was ordained a priest about three years ago.”

He’s now the pastor of a small rural parish in the Diocese of Knoxville, Tennessee. He loves the people, and he hopes they love him.

But Wandera is facing a problem. He came to the United States with a student visa. When he was ordained, he obtained a religious worker visa, called an R-1. From there, he planned to apply for permanent residency — a green card — as do thousands of other religious workers each year. 

Wandera’s R-1 visa expires at the end of 2024. But because of a backlog in federal processing, there’s no way he’ll have his permanent residency application approved by then. That means while his permanent residency application waits for review, the priest will need to leave the country for at least a year, before he can come back on a new R-1 visa, and continue his wait.

Fr. Wandera told The Pillar that his parish congregation isn’t aware of his visa status — or the fact that he’ll likely need to leave the country at the end of 2024. 

The priest said he hasn’t been sure how to tell his parishioners.

“I don’t think my people know any story around this. It’s not within me to explain to them that in a year’s time my visa will expire. I mean, people have no idea that I’m even on a religious worker visa. They just know me as a priest who left Kenya to come and serve them. It’s a very complicated question; I’m not even prepared to explain it to them.”

But the priest, and his congregation, are not alone. 

Because of changes to federal immigration processes, thousands of priests, brothers, and religious sisters across the country are in the same boat — they came to the U.S. to stay, but it might be years before their permanent residency applications can be processed — and in the meantime, they’ll need to leave the country. 

And while diocesan and other Catholic leaders have been working for almost a year on the looming problem, few Catholics realize it’s coming — or that it could impact their local priests and religious sisters. 

For Wandera, that’s been a source of worry. 

“My belonging is within Glenmary in the U.S. Full stop. And so how do I feel? This has been very worrying for me. Because this is where I belong. We are ordained for life. I’m a Glenmarian. We work in rural U.S.A. And now that will all be disrupted. So yes, it’s worrying.”

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While Wandera worries about his congregation, immigration attorneys, diocesan officials, and other Church leaders told The Pillar they’re worried about the big problem facing immigrant priests and religious in the U.S.

Alex Volpe, an immigration attorney who has experience working with dioceses and religious orders, told The Pillar that the problem is a “train wreck.”

Volpe explained what happened:

“In April of last year, the administration decided to change its interpretation of the Immigration and Nationality Act. That new interpretation meant a change for the fourth category of employment-based immigrants in the U.S. — the EB-4 category.”

Volpe told The Pillar that the federal government includes “special immigrant juveniles” in the same immigrant category as people with religious worker visas — a category for which 10,000 green cards are made available each year.

When those 10,000 green cards are issued, they are meant to be divided so that no more than 7% of them are given to immigrants from any particular country.

But in 2023, federal immigration authorities removed the 7% cap for special immigrant juveniles from the “Northern Triangle” countries — El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

National Law Review explained in October that the federal government made the change after deciding that “applications for neglected or abused minors from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador had been in the wrong queue for nearly seven years. These applications were then added to the general queue alongside those of clergy members.”

The reasons for that federal decision are not clear.

But the effects are serious.

“In the change, the administration effectively lumped in [to the same waiting period as religious workers] roughly 100,000 migrants from the Northern Triangle countries, which are El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. These migrants are special immigrant juveniles, unaccompanied minors who come across the border,” Volpe explained.

“That category has roughly 10,000 available green cards per year; only that many can be given each year. So with this move of adding an additional 100,000 people into the category, it created a massive backlog.”

“Previously, it would have taken us just a year, or 18 months, to get a green card for a priest or a sister working in the Church. And now we’re looking at anyone’s best guess. I mean, eight years, or 10 years, or maybe even more,” he said.

Right now, only applications filed before early 2019 are being processed. And the backlog could take years to dig out from.

But if the backlog only meant that priests and religious sisters had to wait longer to get their permanent residency cards, it wouldn’t be too much of a problem, Volpe said.

There’s another factor, which makes the current situation a mess.

“The train wreck comes because there is a five-year limit for people in the temporary R-1 religious worker category,” he explained.

“That used to be enough time. Eighteen months ago, that was perfectly fine. A priest could spend some time in R-1, and then go through the steps to get a green card. But now that we’re dealing with this issue, the five-year limit is a real problem.”

The problem is that priests and other religious workers need to leave the country for a full year before they can come back with a new R-1 visa. Religious orders and dioceses might be unsure of where they should live, how to pay for it, and how to staff their parishes and other ministries while they’re gone.

Volpe said that there are some options that would allow some priests to transition to different kinds of temporary visas while they wait. But the circumstances are limited, Volpe explained — and federal law only permits some kinds of visas for immigrants with much higher salaries than parish priests. 

And for religious sisters, there are often even fewer options, because their apostolic work doesn’t generally require advanced degrees, or offer much in the way of salary — and contemplative religious sisters don’t draw any salary at all.

“The religious sisters really are taking it hard,” Volpe said. “Immigration law is always done case-by-case. But for the most part, there are really no options to try that will keep them from needing to leave the country, at least as things are now.”

Volpe said that in the next few years, he believes the processing backlog will impact thousands of priests and religious. By some estimates, almost half of the 94,000 priests and religious in the country are from foreign countries, with thousands of them in the process of applying for permanent residency. 

“I’ve spoken with bishops who say that 30, 40, or even 50 of their priests and nuns will have to leave,” Volpe said.

And even dioceses and religious orders which find ways for their foreign-born members to stay are impacted by the backlog — because the legal work to address their visa status is time-consuming. 

“I would estimate that even in the cases of the priests that we can keep here, they’ll see a 30% or 40% increase in cost, because of the legal work that now needs to be done. And the cost of losing people is tremendous.”

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According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, as many as 38% of priests in recent U.S. ordination classes were born outside the U.S. A large share of those priests could be impacted by the visa backlog.

Michael Scaperlanda, chancellor of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, told The Pillar that the backlog issue “already has impacted our local Church.”

The archdiocese has local priests from India, Kenya, Central and South America — nearly 25% of priests in the archdiocese come from other countries, Scaperlanda said. 

Most of the archdiocese’s Indian priests tend to rotate between assignments in their Indian dioceses and in the United States, Scaperlanda said. The visa backlog means those priests will spend shorter amounts of time in the U.S. before returning to India .

“We’ll be talking now about a three or four year cycle instead of a 10-year cycle,” for those priests, he explained.

“And so far as learning the culture, acclimating to Oklahoma and the United States, this is going to have a big impact. Because it’s hard to get used to being here, and so the longer they can stay, the better for us.” 

And for priests and seminarians from Latin America, even those who are incardinated in the Oklahoma City archdiocese, “now we’ve got to potentially send them back for a year, and we’re not quite sure how to figure that out. Nobody really is sure what to do with their priests during that time, or fill the gaps this will leave, as I talk to counterparts in other parts of the country.”

Scaperlanda said that his archdiocese has benefited tremendously from the ministry of foreign-born priests, especially as the number of Hispanic immigrants grows in the region.

“But for that to continue, this has to get resolved. If they’re incardinated here, or we want them to be incardinated here, we don’t want to send them away for a year, or see them waiting indefinitely for permanent residency.”

Fr. Aaron Wessman is vicar general of the Glenmary Home Missioners, and a board member of the Conference of Major Superiors of Men — an umbrella organization for men’s religious orders in the United States.

Wessman told The Pillar that the immigration issue will be a major challenge for his own religious community, and for others in the U.S.

“We have been accepting vocations from countries in East Africa and Latin America for about 20 years. We’ve invited people who are not from the United States to be a part of our life, and to serve and administer in parishes here in the U.S.,” he explained.

Glenmary expects that three of its priests will need to leave the country in the next three years, with more prospective departures on the horizon.

“And all three of these men are either pastors, associate pastors, or our vocation director. Their future with Glenmary and how they will serve with our community is uncertain.”

“And we have three ordinations coming up in the spring. All three of those men are from Kenya. They will be affected by this as well — they have three to five years in which they can serve under the R-1 visa. But after that, if the system isn’t corrected, they will be affected as well.”

These are the only ordinations that we have scheduled at this point. We have men from the United States in formation, but for us, this is very significant, because we really do need priests to be able to continue on our mission of bringing the Catholic Church to places without priests.”

There are 50 members of the Glenmary society of apostolic life — both priests and brothers. But the uncertainty about the future of even six members has made planning difficult, Wessman said.

“We don't know specifically how we will in Glenmary cover our parish commitments and our mission commitments,” Wessman said. 

“We are a community of priests and brothers. We have a ministry that is very much parochial based,” he added.

But with visas becoming unpredictable, “we can't plan for the future, to know for example that we're going to be in East Tennessee for the next five years, or that we're going to be able to send another guy to Eastern Kentucky, where there's no Catholic presence — because we don't know what personnel we will have four to five years from now.” 

“So it's really causing a disruption.”

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Wessman told The Pillar that the visa backlog has been a major concern among religious superiors in the U.S.

“As soon as the decision was made back in the spring of 2023, this was all the buzz within CMSM. I would say every single religious community that is in the United States is staring at this problem and wondering how they're going to respond.”

Some religious institutes, he said, have houses in other countries, where religious can live for a year while they wait to return to the United States. But others don’t, leaving both men’s and women’s religious communities uncertain where their members will live, or how they’ll continue religious life away from their apostolates and their communities.

Some religious institutes have looked at enrolling members in school to qualify for student visas, or finding other visa alternatives. Some have looked to send members to study Spanish in Mexico or other Latin American countries for a year. Others aren’t quite sure what to do — and the legal bills to study options have gotten costly for many institutes.

For his part, Wessman said the situation should remind Americans to be grateful for foreign-born priests and religious.

“There are real people. These are men and women who have answered the call of Jesus to leave everything and be missionaries here in the United States. And so we need to do everything we can to honor that and try to help them.”

But while dioceses and religious orders plan to see members out of the country, there are political efforts underway to find other solutions to the problem.

David Spicer is assistant director for policy in the Migration and Refugee Services office at the U.S. bishops’ conference.

Spicer told The Pillar that the bishops’ conference has been working since last year to address the backlog, in hopes of finding some relief.

In November 2023, the bishops’ conference sent a letter to State Department and federal Homeland Security officials, arguing that the policy changes which created a backlog mean that “local communities across the United States suffer from the loss of services for the neediest and reduced religious activities due to understaffed places of worship.”

The change “leaves thousands of religious workers on the path to adjusting their status in a troubling predicament. Religious organizations will be left short-staffed, possibly for an extended period, and the people they serve will suffer the consequences,” the conference said.

The bishops’ conference suggested that the State Department allow R-1 visa holders who are waiting for permanent residency to spend less time than a year outside the country before returning with new R-1 visas. 

The Department of State could “quickly issue a rule to shorten the one-year physical presence requirement outside the United States before re-entry in a new period of nonimmigrant status to no more than thirty days,” the conference said.

That would allow R-1 visa holders to wait as long as needed for permanent residency, without leaving their parishioners without pastoral care. 

The conference also urged that the State Department change the policy which created the backlog in the first place, with a “phased-out approach,” which would “ensure that the community is less burdened by the changes.” 

Spicer said that the bishops have worked with interfaith coalitions to suggest changes to federal policy, since other religious organizations are also impacted by the R-1 backlogs, and have urged leaders from other religious groups to raise issues to the federal government.

After the conference began lobbying for change, Spicer said, “we have had several engagements with the White House, some of which have included representatives from either the Department of Homeland Security or the Department of State.” 

“Everyone that we've spoken to from the administration has been sympathetic. They've been receptive to hearing our ideas,” he added, especially as the conference suggests a shorter wait time outside the U.S. for R-1 visa holders.

Spicer believes that change would make a big difference for dioceses and religious institutes.

“As you can imagine for a Catholic institution, a diocese that has a foreign born priest assigned to a parish, for example, having that priest leave for just 30 days on a sabbatical is much more manageable than having that priest leave for an entire year. You can't really keep that priest assigned to that parish for that period of time,” he said.

But the change — which falls under the purview of the Homeland Security department — hasn’t happened yet. It could happen soon though, Spicer said.

“We have recently heard from the White House that a forthcoming rule … could include a shortening of that timeframe,” he explained.

But there’s not yet any guarantee.

And Spicer said that the backlog itself can only be addressed by Congress. 

“When you have meetings with Congressional offices,” he said, “the likelihood of that isn’t great.”

Still, Spicer said that if priests and religious only have to leave the country for 30 days every five years, that would be a big success.

He also hopes the matter gets more public attention, so that administration officials know the issue matters to Catholics.

“This will be impacting more and more people in the 12 to 24 months,” he said. “And when people start losing their priests, well, people in the pews will start to speak out.” 

“At least that’s the hope.”

Fr. Kenn Wandera after Mass in his native Kenya, during a visit home. Credit: Glenmary.

In Tennessee, that would be a game-changer for Fr. Wandera and his congregation.  

“Ministry in this country would be hampered in major ways if missionaries didn’t come,” the priest said. “And the people in the pews don’t always realize that. Or their civil leaders.

‘I mean — go to any diocese, at the presbyteral meeting, and look around in that room, at how many people were not born in this country. It’s everywhere across the nation. And this is a reality looking at our leaders in the face,” Wandera said. 

“Many of our civil leaders are Catholics. And finding a way to keep their priests in this country — that should be a priority for them. Our civil leaders should be able to address this — along with the people in the pews — because in this country, the power is with the people, right?”

“My people should not have to go without the Mass. We can’t go without it.”

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Editor’s note: This story was updated after publication to clarify immigration policy norms, and the relationship between the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and the two dioceses in India from which it receives priests.

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