While comprehensive immigration reform languishes in Congress, an important program critical to ensuring religious pluralism is set to expire unless legislation is passed.
The non-minister provision of the religious worker visa program, which has been a pipeline linking expatriate communities such as Hindu-Americans with their roots, is under a sunset provision that lapses next summer unless it's re-authorized. For Hindu-Americans, most of whom trace their ancestry to the Indian subcontinent, priests are a vital connection to sustaining traditions at temples and other religious functions. For my family, who came to the United States 40 years ago, priests and other religious workers have been of immense importance. For example, every year my father and I perform rites honoring my late mother, which we would be unable to do in the United States without the guidance of trained priests.
The Freedom of Faith Act, introduced by U.S. Rep. Mike Honda, would re-authorize the program permanently, easing the anxiety among numerous faith groups who rely on the non-minister provision to bring in priests to perform religious duties (the Senate already passed a version as part of its immigration reform bill). One reason why this is critical is that Hindu priests do not fall under the minister category as other faiths, owing to special training standards that had been shaped for primarily Abrahamic traditions. Hindus also don't have the facilities to train religious workers in this country.
Secondly, as Hindu American Foundation Board Member Padma Kuppa notes, immigrant workers are more than just priests. They "teach in religious schools, provide spiritual counsel, serve as ritual specialists, design and build religious institutions, and perform numerous other religious functions." Most of the temples built in the United States were constructed by workers who came through this provision.
As my colleague Harsh Voruganti writes, the potential expiration of the religious worker program would have adverse consequences on other faith groups, including Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox Christians, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, and Scientologists. This is why a diverse interfaith coalition has backed Honda's introduction of the bill.
While American Hinduism is in the midst of defining itself and evolving traditions that are at times distinct from traditions practiced in India and other parts of the world, the religious worker visa remains a vital bridge to ensure that thousands of years of vital traditions are passed down -- or at least explained accurately -- to future generations.
Passing the Freedom of Faith Act would not only help to advance our nation's pluralism, but safeguard the religious freedom enshrined in our Constitution.