USCIS Again Focus Resources on a Tiny Alien Population — Wandering Ministers

By David North on March 16, 2012

Instead of spending its limited resources on important issues — like who should and who should not come to the United States — USCIS has, yet again, spent executive energy and federal money on a population so tiny that one would need a microscope to find it.

This time the population consists of one or more wandering, footloose, nonimmigrant ministers and/or other religious workers whose record of staying in the United States is not solid enough to meet current standards. On March 8, USCIS issued a detailed, five-page policy memorandum, "Procedures for Calculating the Maximum Period of Stay for R-1 Nonimmigrants" to prevent the forced departure of these R-1 aliens (religious workers).

It is a policy change that is designed to help a very small segment of the small minority of American religious institutions, those so vulnerable that they have difficulty recruiting Americans to work for them. It is not likely to do much for the mainstream Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, or Jewish congregations; it also an action so obscure that I guarantee you will not read about it in the mainstream media.

Since this is a pro-church action by the Obama administration, albeit a small-scale one, it might even be cheered by Rick Santorum, who tells us he almost vomited when he read John Kennedy's famous separation of church and state speech.

Here's the substance: The newly created policy is to identify the "recapture" time spent abroad to enhance the opportunity of R-1 aliens to spend more time in the United States as nonimmigrants, which presumably will, in turn, help them to later convert to immigrant status.

If that last sentence leaves you puzzled, I would not be surprised; I had to struggle with the concepts for a long time before I got them straight in my own mind. But the thrust is clear: It is another move by USCIS to make it easier for another tiny population to migrate to the United States.

R-1 religious workers can stay in the United States for as long as five years in nonimmigrant status, but not longer; then they either have to leave the country or, more likely, convert to immigrant status.

But how do you calculate the five years if, during that period, the R-1 alien spends some time overseas, probably in his or her home country? Do you subtract out that time from the five years — i.e., recapture it — or do you not count it as part of the five years? The current policy is to count all the time since the arrival, no matter where it was spent; but that definition clearly has inconvenienced one or more wandering R-1s and they must have appealed to USCIS for the recapture provision. Without recapture they could not stay legally.

Two questions: How many aliens are in this odd little bind, and what should be done about them? USCIS, ever chary with numbers, will not tell us how many there are, but they did respond quickly to their alleged peril.

That imaginative agency has decided that the five years only counts, for this purpose, when you actually are physically in the United States during that period, so trips abroad, maybe even substantial stays abroad, do not count toward the five years. A lot of USCIS staff time must have been spent figuring this out, and then writing the related documents, such as the previously mentioned policy memorandum.

It is the kind of pro-migration redefinitions, even for tiny populations, that USCIS makes all the time. For example, there were the administrative changes made on behalf of another minuscule minority of would-be immigrants, the alien stepparents who had been seriously abused by their U.S. citizen stepchildren, a policy we described in an earlier blog.

USCIS took great care that all four of the abused alien stepparents of U.S. citizens, or whatever the number was, got their green cards right away.

Similarly, USCIS has decided that there is a tiny group of nonimmigrant aliens, who are, simultaneously, rich enough to be investors and poor enough so that they do not have to pay USCIS fees to establish that status. This group is, happily, confined to the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. territory just north of Guam in the Western Pacific. Their status was worked out by USCIS in a labor-intensive manner described in another earlier blog.

So, the wandering R-1 nonimmigrants rescued by the latest USCIS decision may not be numerous, but that group is a member of an ever-expanding set of tiny populations that attract the eye-on-the-sparrow proclivities of our immigration system.