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Immigration woes for foreign clergy

ABBEVILLE — Father Allam Marreddy, administrator of Sacred Heart Church, has to deal with more than the usual concerns of a parish priest these days.

Like some other clergy across the United States, he suddenly has to face worries about his immigration status.

Father Marreddy, whose home diocese is in India, is one of dozens of clergy and religious workers from other countries who are based in the United States and have come under increased scrutiny by immigration officials in recent months, according to Allison Posner, a staff attorney with the Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc. in Washington, D.C. Posner also works with immigrant priests in the Diocese of Charleston.

In a telephone interview, Posner said a 2006 fraud study by the U.S. Department of Citizenship and Immigration Services indicated that 30 percent of R1 visas given to people claiming to be religious workers in the United States were issued fraudulently.

As a result, the department has been demanding extremely detailed information from many legitimate priests and other clergy before their visas or applications for permanent residency can be approved.

Father Marreddy, who also is administrator for Good Shepherd Mission in McCormick, applied for permanent residency status in summer of 2006, in order to give the USCIS plenty of time to process his application before his current visa expired in May 2007.

That application has been held up by extensive demands for more information about his status and the diocese, Posner said.

She hopes current efforts will give Father Marreddy up to three more months for the status problem to be corrected.
“He’s basically waiting for immigration to approve his case, using information he filed in plenty of time, or else he’ll have to leave the country,” she said. “I feel sorry for him and for the other priests. It’s important to make clear that it’s not just him, but other priests in the diocese are dealing with this as well as religious workers all over the U.S.”

She said her office initially received a “request for evidence” about Father Marreddy in December, and that the evidence requested was “overly broad” and wasn’t specific to him as an individual.

“At that time I contacted the diocese and got them involved, because the demand included inappropriate and overly long questions,” she said.

Posner said subsequent requests for information about the priest also were not specifically tailored to his case, but she has since submitted a “huge packet of information” about Father Marreddy, his work and the Diocese of Charleston.  
“They asked for evidence that the diocese even exists,” Posner said. “They asked for utility bills. I had to send them pictures of the chancery office.”

She said Sen. Lindsay Graham’s office has attempted to intervene in the priest’s favor, and Bishop Robert J. Baker has sent a letter to immigration officials describing how clergy are desperately needed in the diocese.

Despite these efforts, Posner said the immigration department has still indicated Father Marreddy’s application has to go through further screening.

When asked about his situation, Father Marreddy referred most questions to Posner. He said he is simply trying to do his daily work in Abbeville.

“I am just taking it day to day and praying,” he said.

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