To the delight of many American religious organizations, when President Obama signed the Homeland Security Appropriations Act on October 28, he also put into effect a 3-year extension of the Religious Worker Visa Program (RWVP). Previously scheduled to expire at the end of October, the program will now extend to September 30, 2012. The victory was the result of an intensive lobbying effort by several religious organizations, and was a top priority of Agudath Israel of America.Nearly 20 years ago, Congress enacted the RWVP, a new “special immigration” visa category that would, for the first time, allow foreign religious workers and functionaries to come to the United States and, under the sponsorship of American religious organizations, help serve the needs of their respective communities. The legislation authorized up to 5,000 visas for religious workers and was subject to a 3-year “sunset provision” – thus the need for ongoing reauthorization.
“This has been an important program for the Orthodox Jewish community,” said Rabbi Abba Cohen, Agudath Israel’s Washington Office director and counsel, one of a handful of religious advocates who helped craft and promote the original legislation. “We receive numerous calls throughout the year from community leaders from around the country seeking guidance on how local Jewish institutions might participate in the program.”
For the Jewish community, the RWVP has been useful in cities large and small, but particularly helpful in remote areas with small Jewish populations. The program has been used to bring Jewish religious teachers (rabbeim, moros), cantors (chazzanim), ritual slaughterers (shochtim), ritual circumcisers (mohelim) and other religious functionaries and charity workers into communities where their services are required. “These individuals have played critical roles in serving the unique needs of community institutions – synagogues, schools, community centers, social service charities, etc. – and have made it possible for Jewish life in many places to continue and be strengthened,” Rabbi Cohen notes.
Agudath Israel, in close cooperation in recent years with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, has remained vigilant in making sure the RWVP remains strong and as effective as possible.
“Over the years at times, because of the unique decentralized structure of the Jewish community and other factors, we have encountered proposals and requirements that could have limited our smooth access to the program,” observes the Agudah representative, “but, along with our partners, we have been successful in overcoming these hurdles – and hopefully will continue to do so in the future.”