From Catholic priests to labourers who carve Hindu temples of stone, members of India’s religious economy are bracing themselves for a tougher path into the US under a new immigration Bill.
Perhaps better known for sending a steady supply of high-technology workers, India also happens to be the largest source country for US religious visas. Last year, 1,300 of the 11,000 so-called R visas issued were to Indians.
Already, religious workers in India say the US government is cracking down on them. One group of shilpis, or sculptors, being dispatched to construct an all-stone Shiva temple in Hawaii said the consulate in Chennai turned down their applications, encouraging them to apply under the highly skilled, or H-1B, category.
US embassy spokeswoman Heather Grant refused to comment, saying there could be a “misunderstanding and since the legislation is still being debated, we cannot tell how it is going to impact India.”
The sweeping immigration proposal asks sponsors of R visas to provide documentation and certification of religious workers; it also limits such visa holders to a stay of one year, instead of three. The measures come at a time when affluent Hindu communities in the US are constructing grand temples that look eerily similar to those here. About half of the religious visas, say observers, go to Catholic priests and nuns migrating to help plug an acute shortage in the US.
The confusion over religious visas is already delaying projects in the US and casting doubt on the migrations of some Indians. The planned $16-million Sanmarga Iraivan Temple in Kauai, Hawaii, for example, won’t be able to continue construction this summer. Other temples say they are nervous because they rely on the visas to bring in scholars and experts on rituals.
Because of the unorganized nature of religious workers in India, certifications might be impossible to provide, observers say. “If terms used in the proposed Bill are not properly defined, it could mean the end of temples here. It will make it almost impossible for us to bring in religious workers,” said Council of Hindu Temples of North America secretary-treasurer Uma Mysorekar.
According to the council, there are about 150 temples for the 1.2 million Hindus in the US, with many more planned. With a dearth of clergy, temples in the US say they sometimes resort to poaching priests from nearby temples.
The US Congress began debating changes—such as defining religious workers, adding inspections and verifying the need for additional employees—after a report revealed that 33% of R visa applications were fraudulent.
The Fraud Detection and National Security Agency report said under the current rules, a non-existent church in Fiji could, and often did, file for visas for priests it did not need; or a one-room basement mosque in New York sometimes filed petitions for as many as 200 workers.
In India, supplying the US with religious workers has become an industry. Firms such as Chennai-based Sri Vidyanatha Sthapati Associates provide traditional Vastu-based architects, builders and sculptors for Hindu temples in the US. Ponni Mathu, who runs the firm, said it has been having trouble securing visas.
Of her 75-100 shilpis and 40 temple designers, Mathu said 30 have travelled to the US on short-term projects.
The firm has helped build seven temples in the US. Mathu said she was not clear on the immigration proposal, but said the Hawaii project has been inching along slowly.
The construction of the temple began in 1990 and could take another decade.
“The carving of stones for the temple began in Bangalore first and the assembly began six years ago in Hawaii,” said Swami Arumugaswami, who runs the Hindu Monastery in Hawaii. Three teams of eight craftsmen from Mathu’s firm have been flown in to assemble the structure. “We rotate the teams because we don’t want to keep them away from their families for too long.”
While the monastery provides for workers’ housing, food and other expenses, they are also paid a salary of $1,300, or Rs52,000, per month. In India, they would have made around Rs6,000 a month.
The temple will lose its current workers in August, when their visas expire and project manager Jiva Rajasankaran is not sure what will happen after. “We will have to reapply under H-1B category, but who knows how long it will take,” said Rajasankaran.
This year’s allotment of H-1B visas already has been exhausted although Indian and American companies alike have been lobbying for more.
Organizations such as Catholic Legal Immigration Network that help archdioceses and religious institutes bring foreign-born religious workers to the US, said churches can’t afford the new requirements.
Sr Margaret Perron, director of the network’s religious immigration services, said religious workers, such as those in India, will be left hanging for months. Groups such as the United States-India Political Action Committee, or USINPAC, that represent Indian concerns on Capitol Hill have been busy lobbying politicians.
“We are telling them that if there is abuse, we need to fix the system, not throw it all out of the window. Many groups, across the US are lobbying for clearer definitions and fighting to protect this category,” said Sanjay Puri, founder and chairman of USINPAC.
Meanwhile, the expatriate Indian community awaits both a verdict and the completion of their temples. Many Indians commute, sometimes for hours, to worship, seeking the familiarity of home. “My children are growing up so far away from home that the poojas, rituals and norms of a temple become that much more important,” said Mahadev Patel, a consultant in Philadelphia.