Due to changes and delays in the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, priests from dioceses outside the United States with pending immigration cases have had to leave, stop working or may have to return to their home diocese.
Thirteen priests working in the Diocese of Little Rock could be impacted by these delays.
“It’s not just our diocese, and in fact, several months ago we had a Zoom meeting with attorneys, civil attorneys throughout the country who work on religious immigration stuff to kind of brainstorm, what are the problems you're facing? What are the issues you're facing? How do you approach this issue in your diocese? What have you done here? So it's not just a problem in our diocese,” said Deacon Matt Glover, chancellor for canonical affairs at the Diocese of Little Rock. “It's not anything that any of our priests are doing wrong, or not doing quickly enough.
“It's a problem completely across the board. And so you might have someone who's able to be here legally, who has legal status, but their employment authorization document has expired, even though we have timely filed to renew it … there's multiple ways in which someone might fall out of status and have to return or even if they're here, they wouldn't necessarily be authorized to work and it puts them in a real limbo.”
Starting in the Trump administration in 2017 and continuing in the Biden administration, movement on immigration document processing “to put it charitably, is hugely backlogged,” Glover said. Policy changes have also made it difficult and sometimes impossible, even if paperwork is filed on time or before deadlines, to be processed in time before a person’s legal status runs out.
Glover said it’s a multi-faceted problem, impacting immigration cases throughout the U.S.
Religious workers come here legally with an R1 visa and can work for five years. At the end of that period, they can either go back to their home country for a year and then return to the U.S. on a new R1 visa, or before that period runs out, can file paperwork to transition into being a “lawful permanent resident,” obtaining a green card, he said.
In other cases, if someone is already in the process of obtaining a green card, certain delayed steps in the process can cause their work authorization to be halted. Therefore, they cannot legally work in the U.S. during that time until their application is processed further.
As of Feb. 9, two priests have so far been impacted. Father Aby Abraham, IMS, formerly pastor of St. Mary Church in Paragould and Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Walnut Ridge, returned to India Jan. 14 because his R1 time period had expired, and his request to transition to lawful permanent residency was not processed in time. The diocese is already making plans for him to return in February 2023.
On Feb. 6, Father Polycarp Ssebbowa was temporarily suspended from his role as pastor at St. James Church in Searcy and St. Richard Church in Bald Knob because of a delay in the renewal of his work authorization and in his green card approval. While he can remain in the U.S., he is unable to work.
Glover said Father Ssebbowa, a native of Uganda with the Diocese of Kasana-Luweeno, still has his priestly faculties and so is able to celebrate Mass and other sacraments, but he cannot work as a pastor or perform those responsibilities or be paid. He is staying at Immaculate Conception Church in North Little Rock, and pastor Father John Wakube and associate pastor Father Ben Riley will cover Masses in Searcy and Bald Knob, as well as funerals and emergency calls.
“We adjusted a number of things. There are some things we can postpone, for example school visits, we can meet the kids in the church” for school Mass instead of taking the time to go to the school, Father Wakube said, adding “I have no problem helping.”
While the diocese is hopeful Father Ssebbowa’s immigration case continues to proceed in a timely manner, there is no clear indication of how long it will be before he can be reinstated as pastor. It also is unclear how many of the 13 extern missionary priests with pending immigration cases could be impacted.
“It’s hard to say. USCIS has started to look at implementing certain changes, which would make it potentially less problematic, minimize the kinds of disruptions that we've been seeing lately, but government moves slow,” Glover said. “So it could be awhile before we see those changes actually implemented. Until those changes are implemented, this is kind of the new normal for the next several years I would say. It’s just unfortunate.”
Father Amal Raju Punganoor Lourduswamy, pastor of St. Michael Church in Cherokee Village and St. Mary Church in Horseshoe Bend, is moving through the green card process. He also might be impacted by processing delays with USCIS. He came to Arkansas from the Diocese of Nellore, India, in 2017.
“Everything is in the hands of God, and also in the hands of the government. If they are able to process it faster, then we might be able to get it,” he said, adding he is not worried.
Glover said losing more priests could impact parishes having access to the sacraments or having to cut down on certain missions or activities.
“It can create this sequence of events where there's real instability, not just within leadership of a parish, but just the priestly ministry, the spiritual ministry to the people of a parish,” Glover said.
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