The possibility of deportation lingers as a fear for immigrants as individuals can easily become unlawful residents while still trying to abide by immigration laws.

Fr. Max Tzul greets a parishioner following the Saturday evening Mass at the Sacred Heart site of Holy Family Parish, Fond du Lac on Dec. 13. (Catholic Herald photo by Sam Arendt)Fr. Maximo Tzul, 49, is a priest at Holy Family Parish, Fond du Lac, and believes working in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee is his mission.

Born in Guatemala, he was ordained a priest in 1996 in the Missionary Fraternity of Mary to “go where we are needed.” His immigration experience has been less dramatic than Fr. Arul Ponnaiyan’s, where an error at the U.S. consulate in Chennai, India, delayed his return to Wisconsin for a month (See Catholic Herald, Dec. 11), but it is still difficult.

In 2009, he was sent by his religious community to stay with other members of the order to study English for six weeks. Once there, he learned of the need for a Guatemalan priest in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and was selected to fill the vacancy.

It took roughly six months for him to obtain an R-1 visa, approved in

immigration frustration

Part 1: When doing everything right doesn’t work

Going from nonimmigrant to immigrant

March 2010. As soon as he could, he gathered his things and boarded a plane to Wisconsin where he received an R-1 Religious Worker Visa status to live in the country.

He went to Sacred Heart School of Theology to study English for another six weeks and then was assigned to Holy Family Parish in June of that year.

With his R-1 visa and status in hand, Fr. Tzul served the parish until his status expired.

“There is an immigration law that states the R-1 (status) is granted for only five years, but these five years are

Editor’s note

Last’s week’s Catholic Herald told the story of Fr. Arul Ponnaiyan’s challenges with the immigration system. This week we bring you the final installment of a two-part series by reporter Ricardo Torres who examined the system through the experiences of two priests trying to legally navigate the immigration system. He discovered that even for those entering – or returning to – the United States legally, the process can be frustrating.

not given at once,” Fr. Tzul said. “They gave me two and a half years first. That expired in 2013.”

An R-1 status expires two and a half years after being issued. A person can renew his or her R-1 status one time, while remaining in the country, for another two and a half years. If he or she wishes to renew it a second time, he or she must return to his or her home country for at least one year and one day before applying.  

Immigration visa, status are different

There is a difference between an immigration visa and immigration status. The visa only allows for individuals to cross into the United States but it doesn’t allow them to stay. The immigration status allows an individual to stay in the United States for a period of time, depending on which status, however it doesn’t allow people to enter the country. An immigrant will most likely need both.

It’s a delicate balancing act for those trying to manage the system.

“Their status has to be good and they have to maintain their religious worker visa if they want to travel,” Barbara Graham, attorney for Catholic Charities, said. “But you can’t get the visa unless you get the religious worker (status) ahead of time, and that could take five or six months.”

Perhaps no one in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee knows how to navigate the immigration legal waters better thanBarbara Graham, Catholic Charities director of legal services for immigrants, assists immigrants with legal issues from her office at St. Patrick Parish, Milwaukee. (Catholic Herald photo by Ricardo Torres) Graham.

Her office is located next to St. Patrick Parish, Milwaukee, on Washington Street in what used to be a convent, and is now completely operated by Catholic Charities.

Graham recieves daily emails from the Catholic Legal Immigration Network and the American Immigration Laywers Association about what’s new in United States immigration law.

“We get updates, like, every morning,” she said. “We probably, all of us, spend 15, 20 (minutes) half an hour every morning just going through what they changed.”

In February 2013, Fr. Tzul’s R-1 status expired while his application for renewal was processing.

“When my (status) expired, also, my driver’s license expired,” Fr. Tzul said. “So, it’s a little uncomfortable to drive around or go around without your ID.”

Fr. Tzul said while he was conducting parish business he was nervous he could be deported.

“I was afraid that somebody would ask for my ID and I knew my visa was expired,” Fr. Tzul said.
Grateful for prayer support

According to Fr. Tzul, Graham told him that as long as he had proof his R-1 status was processing, he shouldn’t have any problems with authorities.  

“The only thing I had was a receipt that my application is pending of approval,” Fr. Tzul said. “It was the only thing I had to prove that I’m trying to do everything legally.”

Recently, the Wisconsin Department of Motor Vehicles, said that a driver’s license can be granted if an individual is “pending application for adjustment of status to legal permanent resident status or conditional resident status.”
However, that wasn’t the case when Fr. Tzul was going through the process. He shared his situation with the parish council and other parishioners and received enormous support.

“They were praying,” Fr. Tzul said. “They said, ‘If there is anything we can do, let us know.’”

Priest empathizes with immigrants’ insecurity

Despite the support, Fr. Tzul felt “insecure” about his status.

“I don’t want to do, or be here, illegally,” Fr. Tzul said. “It was very uncomfortable time, but also a nice way to experience what most of our illegal immigrants are living through every day.”

From February to May 2013, Fr. Tzul’s R-1 status remained pending. In May, he went back to Guatemala for two weeks to visit family and renew his R-1 visa to allow him to come back to the United States.

The Archdiocese of Milwaukee takes care of the majority of the work to make sure the immigrant priests can legally work in the United States. This is critical for Fr. Tzul, who left school after the sixth grade in order to work, but who returned six years later to begin studies in the minor seminary. Navigating the immigration legal labyrinth is something that’s extremely complicated even for someone like Graham, who has a degree from Marquette University Law School.

Fr. Tzul returned to the consulate in Guatemala City to attend his interview for his visa.

“An interview is not a guarantee to get the visa,” he said.

Graham said if individuals, priests like Fr. Tzul, leave the country, they need to have the proper visa. And the R-1 visa to re-enter is only good for the location it’s assigned to.

“Those R-1’s aren’t portable,” Graham said. “So if you decide you hate the Archdiocese of Milwaukee you can’t pick up your religious visa and go to the Archdiocese of New York. That visa belongs to the archdiocese; it doesn’t belong to the priest.”

However, they can reapply in the United States as there is no requirement stating to renew the R-1 status one would have to go back to his or her home country.  

But unlike Fr. Ponnaiyan, Fr. Tzul had no problems.

“They have all of the information because the archdiocese sends them all of the information to the immigration department,” Fr. Tzul said.

Status will expire soon

Fr. Tzul is living in the United States legally, but as with his first issue of the R-1 status, it will expire soon.

“My (status) is going to expire again in April 2015,” Fr. Tzul said. “Now we are in the process to apply for the green card.”

Fr. Tzul is working with attorneys to become a legal immigrant.

“The religious worker visa is a nonimmigrant visa. It never turns into a green card. You have to file something else that will morph you into a lawful permanent resident,” Graham said. “That then is what you use to go ahead and, almost like a coupon, apply for lawful permanent residency.”

While his green card application is processing he’s been told he can’t leave the United States, which can potentially cause another issue.

“If my visa is going to expire, I should leave this country, but while the application is (processing) I cannot leave this country,” Fr. Tzul said. “Right now, I cannot go back to Guatemala.”

Fr. Tzul said if he were to leave the United States before his green card is granted, he would have to start the process again.

He still has a father, four sisters and 23 nieces and nephews back home. Apart from his two-week visit to Guatemala in 2013, he hasn’t seen his family and he can’t help them visit him in the United States.

“They need to have an international credit card or huge amount of money in their checking account. Or somebody, like a good family or institution, can send an invitation to them … I can’t do that,” he said. “I’m sure no one will come to visit me here.”

As a missionary, Fr. Tzul said he goes where priests are needed. There is a shortage of priests in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and he sees himself as someone who’s repaying a country that’s helped him.

“I know that during many years, my country received missionaries from Europe and this country (United States), but now we have this great opportunity, in a way, to give back what we received in the beginning,” he said. “Because I belong to a missionary community, that is part of our mission, of our commitment to the church, to go wherever we are needed.”

Not every archdiocese offers legal services to immigrants like the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, which expands to not only include priests, but nuns, parishioners and others.

“We originally started doing this not for the priests; we originally started doing this because the women religious workers couldn’t afford the private bar anymore,” Graham said, adding the archdiocese kept having issues with immigration. “They didn’t know that you couldn’t pick up that visa and go to a different diocese. You know, mother superior tells you to move from Florida to Milwaukee, and you do, and all of a sudden you’ve violated what you’re allowed to do.”

‘Counterintuitive laws’ create misunderstandings

Graham said a lot of the misunderstandings between people seeking a lawful status and the government are because the laws are “counterintuitive.”

“The Immigration and Nationality Act is the only thing that makes the tax code look user friendly,” she said.
Some of the language contained in some of the applications include questions on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Act, which asks if an individual has committed “a particularly serious misdemeanor.”

“Do you know what that is? How can you say you’ve never done one when you don’t know what that is?” Graham said.

On the I-485 application to register permanent residence or adjust status, a question asks if an individual has ever committed “crimes involving moral turpitude.”

“Who talks about moral turpitude?” Graham said.

The contradictionary language can cause problems and confuse applicants.

“Second degree reckless endangerment is not a crime involving moral turpitude; passing a bad check is,” she said. “If I take my truck and drive it into your car door while you’re behind your car door, not a problem. If I pass a bad check – big problem. It’s all about intent, but nobody knows what crime involving moral turpitude is.”

Another question asks if an individual has ever been part of the Nazi party from March 23, 1933 to May 8, 1945.

“You can be a Nazi on May 9, just not May 8,” Graham said.

There are also questions asking if the applicant is a “member of, or in any way affiliated with, the Communist Party or any other totalitarian party?” The application even asks if they plan to practice polygamy in the United States.

Legal fees for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee cost $300, but Graham said they haven’t rejected anyone who couldn’t pay. For most priests and nuns, the archdiocese can cover it.

Graham tries to sympathize with those with whom she works, but as with the Fr. Ponnaiyan case, there are issues that even she can’t fix.

“I always tell them don’t be afraid, just really annoyed,” she said. “You end up working with those congressional offices who have contacts I just don’t have.”  

Going from nonimmigrant to immigrant


Editors note: This chronological listing illustrates the process taken by a seminarian from a different country to become a permanent resident of the United States. The following is put in the context of all paperwork being filed on time and everything being done legally.

Also in this scenario, we’re including the step to get R-1 status with the R-1 visa. This is a common component for foreign priests, nuns and other faith workers who at some point during their work in the United States would like to go back to their country (for vacation, to see family and friends, etc.) and be allowed back into the U.S.

Student visa granted
“As long as you’re going to school and doing what you’ve got to full-time, you’re good to go,” said Barbara Graham, immigration attorney for Catholic Charities.

One year of practical training period

Apply for R-1 visa ($325 filing fee)
“You can’t apply more than six months in advance, but sometimes they take five (months) to process,” Graham said. “You have to get the timing straight so you get your R-1 approved before your practical training expires.”

Apply for R-1 status ($405 filing fee)
Applicants shouldn’t leave the United States until it’s approved, however, Graham admits it’s very difficult to keep people from moving at will. She advises individuals not to leave because individuals must remain in the country to renew the status.
“Your R-1 status doesn’t get you a visa, it just gets you permission to be here (in the United States),” Graham said.

R-1 status granted
The status is legal for 30 months and can be renewed once for another 30 months (five years total). The status can be renewed within the United States and filing fees need to be paid for again as with the original process. If an individual renews his or her visa and it ends, he or she must go back to his or her home country. If he or she wanted to gain another R-1 status and visa, he or she must wait one year and one day to apply, according to the law.

“The trick is if they’re going to stay, well before that, you have to file the next set of stuff,” Graham said.


“There are all kinds of immigrant visas,” Graham said, adding there are different applications for immigrant status such as refugee, asylee, crime victim and religious worker.

Requirements: spent a minimum of two years as a full-time religious worker, or have been in final vows for two years. From there the individual can apply for a “Special Immigrant Religious Worker.”

Apply for special immigrant religious worker status ($405 filing fee)
“And for all the work you do to do that, all you get is an approval notice,” Graham said.

Approval granted
“Once you get that approval notice then you can apply for lawful permanent residency,” Graham said. “Which is another set of forms and another set of fees and a medical exam and all kinds of stuff.”

File for adjustment of status application ($1,070 filing fee)

Undergo medical exam to show no diseases of public concern

Status adjustment granted

Apply and receive a work permit

Four to six months later, “Green card shows up in the mail,” Graham said.

Application for citizenship ($680 filing fee)
“It’s really hard to do yourself,” Graham said. “I do this, so maybe I’m completely prejudiced, biased, but I think it’s really hard to do yourself.”