The Government Accounting Office found flaws in the religious visa program in 1999, and Immigration confirmed widespread fraud in 2005. Finally, new regulations are proposed.
USA Today picked up the story that the Homeland Security Department is proposing new rules to tighten up the process for granting temporary visas for religious workers.
The Government Accounting Office reported back in 1999 (two years before 9/11) that there was ample evidence from several investigations that there were large fraud schemes connected with religious visas, often involving organizations that had applied for hundreds of visas. In one case the visas were for people who were already in the US on expired visitor visas. At that time the recommendation included requesting more information from applicants and tracking applications in a computerized database to more easily identify multiple filers.
Although some of the recommended changes were implemented, the world changed, too. In 2005, the US Citizenship and Immigration Service conducted an assessment of religious worker benefit fraud using its Office of Fraud Detection and National Security. A sample of 220 religious worker petitions (covering a period of six months) turned up 72 cases of fraud, about a third of the petitions. The public report didn't include all the information, but examples included more cases of multiple applicants, nonexistent churches, part time positions misrepresented as full time, volunteers who had since ceased working, churches unaware that visas had been issues on their behalf.
Under the proposed new rules, the USCIS may now conduct an on-site inspection of the organization seeking a religious worker. No longer can applications be made a consular post or at port-of-entry. In every case the hiring organization must apply and demonstrate its legitimacy. And the term of the visa will be reduced from three years to one, to provide an opportunity to verify that the terms of the visa are being followed.
What's worth noting here is the extraordinary rate of fraud that emerged when the system wasn't being closely monitored, even though the purpose of the program was to support religious organizations. With these kind of findings, it is hard to justify the complete exemption of religious organizations from other forms of accountability, such as the requirement of charity organizations to register with the IRS and to complete an annual Form 990 (if receipts exceed $25,000). The current policies that exempt religious organizations from even the most basic accountability don't make any sense and in these times are outright dangerous.
See our previous post, Report: US Tax Law Favors Churches over Secular Charities (October 11, 2006).