Religious workers face US immigration backlog

Juan Carlos Chavez, Tampa Bay Times on

Published in Religious News

TAMPA, Fla. — For over four years, Andrés Arenas has been serving as a spiritual leader and musical director at Iglesia Vida Nueva, a Pentecostal church in West Tampa, where the congregation mainly consists of families from Latin America.

In 2019, Arenas came from Bucaramanga, in north-central Colombia, accompanied by his wife, to support this church and contribute to its growth. Attendees gather three times a week to pray, raise their voices in songs of praise and share stories of faith in the building at 610 W. Waters Ave. Arenas also manages a group of around 50 church members who live in Zephyrhills and hold smaller prayer gatherings in private homes.

“We’re like a big family,” said Arenas, 27. “That’s the most important thing.”

But Arenas isn’t sure how much longer he can continue with the congregation.

His R-1 visa, which is granted to foreign-born religious workers for up to five years, is set to expire in December. Two years ago he applied to obtain a permanent residency, but his request has not been processed as he expected.

That’s because of a backlog in permanent residency applications. The approval process for applications for people who already have visas under the category known as Employment-Based Fourth Preference (EB-4) used to take about 18 months. The government grants 10,000 green cards annually for the EB-4 category, which includes foreign-born religious workers, former U.S. government employees, translators and certain broadcasters, among others.


But some petitions that were filed as early as January 2019 are still awaiting approval, and the waitlist can now take years, according to the Evangelical Immigration Table, a coalition of evangelical denominations and organizations that advocates for immigration reform.

That’s at least in part because last year, immigration authorities added another group of immigrants to the EB-4 category — minors from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras who are listed as “special immigrant juveniles” because they were abandoned, abused or neglected by a parent.

“Both Congress and the State Department should act now to reduce the unnecessarily lengthy backlogs in visa processing,” said Galen Carey, vice president of government relations with the National Association of Evangelicals. He said it’s tragic when spiritual leaders serving in churches and communities have to leave the country and abandon their ministries due to “bureaucratic delays.”

“For years we have sent missionaries abroad to plant churches; now many of those churches are reciprocating by sending workers to help us,” Carey said.


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