Racial Equality

How immigrants are at risk of exploitation from religious organizations in the R-1 visa process

  How immigrants are at risk of exploitation from religious organizations in the R-1 visa process

By Alex Santiago

For new immigrants, religious communities are often foundational to their adjustment to the United States. Beyond providing a community, they can often serve as resource hubs which can connect immigrants to crucial fiscal, legal and naturalization services.

R-1 visa allows immigrants who are members of  religious nonprofits to gain employment in the U.S.

Under the Immigrant and Nationality Act, the Temporary Religious Worker visa, or R-1 visa, is intended to allow immigrants who have been members of 501(c) nonprofit religious organizations for two years to gain employment in the United States through their church, temple, synagogue or other tax-exempt religious organization. Although it delineates that the vocation must be religious in nature, the R-1 visa has been cited for the multitude of ways in which religious organizations have exploited it, commonly for labor purposes. 

The nature of the R-1 visa makes it so the application process is enabled through the religious organization, giving them the power to hold, or withhold, employment. Because there is no set minimum wage for these religious workers, the potential for labor exploitation is vast. The R-2 visa is additionally intended for the spouse and children of the R-1 visa holder; jeopardizing the R-1 visa holder’s position would directly endanger the R-2 visa holder’s status as well. For immigrants who want citizenship and want to be involved in their church, fear of being deported alongside their family could prevent them from reporting abuses. 

Builders of Hindu temple in New Jersey sued for alleged exploitation

The Hindu sect Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS) was accused of exploiting the visa system to force immigrants to perform grueling work for little pay to construct a vast new temple in New Jersey. According to a lawsuit filed on the immigrants’ behalf, workers were compensated roughly $1 an hour. The workers, who were primarily Indian men in the Dalit caste, did heavy manual labor but were labeled as artisan masons, allegedly to qualify for the R-1 visa.

While religious organizations serve as important hubs for assimilation and can be the first venue for immigrants to learn how to find vital resources such as housing and employment within the U.S., it is crucial that we ensure R-1 visas are not misused for labor exploitation under the guise of helping immigrants who seek to serve their religious communities. 

Alex Santiago (she/they) is a member of AU’s Youth Organizing Fellowship Program and a student pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Latin American and Latino studies at politics at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Photo: Hindu statues decorate the Akshardham Mahamandir temple at BAPS Swaminarayan Akshardham in New Jersey. Credit: Getty Images.

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