UU minister gets Scrooged by U.S. immigration authorities

Rev. George Buchanan, minister of religious education at First Unitarian Church of Cleveland, is stuck in Canada thanks to Scrooge-like U.S. immigration officials. George, a Canadian citizen, has been living and working in the United States since 2006. He tried to renew his R-1 religious workers visa this summer, only to find that suddenly the government required far more paperwork.

Apparently, the U.S. government has stiffened the requirements for religious workers. As WKYC reported on December 12:

In June, Buchanan applied to have his religious worker visa renewed. But Carrie Buchanan said the process dragged on into the fall with requests for additional paperwork. “They (even) had to have a picture of the fire code certificate for the church could hold,” Carrie Buchanan said. “It was if they thought we were a cult.”…

Immigration attorney Margaret Wong said immigration officals have recently tightened up the requirements for obtaining a religious work visa. “Nowadays, they do a site visit,” Wong said. “(Immigration workers) will come to your temple or church. And if you say that you are a choir director or a minister, they will see if you could actually perform that ministry.”

The Ottowa Citizen, in a December 16 story on George’s situation, was less sympathetic towards U.S. government officials:

Some of the questions suggested the authorities doubted the authenticity of Buchanan’s denomination, the Unitarian Universalist Association, even though the Cleveland congregation has been around since 1867.

If George had stayed in the United States, he probably would have been fine. But his dying father asked George to travel back to Canada. George’s lawyer applied for an expedited process for the visa on compassionate grounds, but U.S. immigration officials said it would take 45 days. George went back to Canada anyway — his father died three days after he arrived — and now he is stuck there. Immigration officials won’t let him return to work. He can’t be at church to help officiate at Christmas Eve services.

Update 12/24/09: Immigration officials have moved things along, and George should be coming home soon — not in time for Christmas, but probably within a few days.