It was just after midnight on June 6, 2013, when Fr. Pat Heppe, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s vicar for clergy, was awoken by his ringing cell phone. Weeks after his 2013 ordination as a priest of the Milwaukee Archdiocese, Fr. Arul Ponnaiyan was stranded in his native India, unable to return to the United States due to problems with his visa. Foreign priests like Fr. Ponnaiyan often face hurdles with the immigration system even though they are following legal routes to enter the country. (Catholic Herald file photo by Allen Fredrickson)

Groggy from being brought out of a deep sleep, he didn’t get to the phone in time and so there was a message waiting for him from India.

It was the then newly ordained Fr. Arul Ponnaiyan who, after ordination, went back to his home country of India to celebrate Mass. He was supposed to return to the United States within a few weeks.

“He left a message and said, ‘I’m having trouble with my visa. They’re not giving me my visa. I’m going to need more information,’” Fr. Heppe said.

Fr. Heppe tried calling Fr. Ponnaiyan, but they couldn’t get a clear signal and eventually connected over Skype.

That’s how Fr. Ponnaiyan, who was to join his new parish, Holy Apostles, New Berlin, on June 18, told the Archdiocese of Milwaukee he was unable to re-enter the country.

No quick fix

Fr. Heppe knew there was no quick fix. 

For the previous three years, Fr. Ponnaiyan was in the United States on

Immigration Frustration
Part 2: Getting caught between legal, illegal worlds

a student visa arranged for him by Saint Francis de Sales Seminary. 

About 54 archdiocesan and religious order priests, and four seminarians, born out of the United States, minister in the Milwaukee Archdiocese.

“The archdiocese gets, sometimes, two or three letters a week asking, ‘Can we come work for you?’ Just out of the clear blue,” Fr. Heppe said. “Unless they know someone here, we usually don’t have a lot to do with them.”The archdiocese closely monitors their legal status and, with the help of Catholic Charities, assists in helping them remain in the country.

Fr. Ponnaiyan’s archdiocesan introduction came through the [su_pullquote align=”right”]Editor’s note: Immigration is much in the news as the country attempts to address the challenges of illegal immigration to the United States. Most involved agree the complicated immigration system is in need of reform. In a two-part series, the first of which appears here, Catholic Herald reporter Ricardo Torres took a look at the system through the experiences of two priests trying to navigate the system legally. Yet, even for those entering the United States legally, the process can be not only challenging, but frustrating. The second part of the series will appear in the Dec. 18 issue.[/su_pullquote]Community of St. Paul, an organization with which he had volunteered in Africa. He occasionally traveled between Milwaukee and India to visit family and friends and was familiar with international travel. 

“Everything was done well from this side,” Fr. Ponnaiyan said, meaning the archdiocese had submitted the appropriate paper work for an R-1 Religious Worker Visa. “All that I had to do was attend the interview with some documents that they required, my passport and my visa 160 confirmation page that was with me when I applied online.”

To be eligible for the R-1 Religious Worker Visa a person needs to be an ordained minister (priest, rabbi, pastor, etc.), member of a lifelong vocation (nuns, monks, brothers etc.) or involved in a religion in a professional capacity (catechists, director of religious education, etc.).

According to the U.S. Department of State, anyone seeking a visa must complete a DS-160, online non-immigration application form for all non-immigrant visa categories. This includes those who want to work in the country but aren’t pursuing permanent status. 

It also states on its FAQ page that when an applicant goes to his or her immigration interview, he or she needs to bring the confirmation page emailed to them. Fr. Ponnaiyan had it.

Sensed something was wrong

Just before the interview started, Fr. Ponnaiyan knew something was wrong. He walked into the U.S. consulate in Chennai where his application was being processed. In the building there’s a hallway lined with chairs. He took a number, sat down, and waited for his number to be called.

When it was finally called, he walked to the open window to check to make sure he had the right documents. The person at the window asked Fr. Ponnaiyan about documents pertaining to a student visa, which he already had and which was valid until 2015. The documents he had with him, however, pertained to the religious worker visa for which he was applying.

“He did note something on the paper,” Fr. Ponnaiyan said, remembering what the clerk did before sending him to the interview in a different building.

Everything seemed to be checked off the list when Fr. Ponnaiyan sat down for his interview. But he was surprised when he saw an Indian was conducting the interview. All the times he renewed his visa while in the seminary, it was done by an American; this was the first time he was being interviewed by a non-American.

“The first thing he asked me was where is that document,” he said, adding it was the same question he received from the clerk in the other building.

“My hunch was he really didn’t know much about religious worker visas,” Fr. Ponnaiyan said. 

It’s possible the person who interviewed Fr. Ponnaiyan was filling in for someone else and, according to Fr. Ponnaiyan, the interview took about five minutes and he was given a 221 (g) US Visa Refusal form.

“I tried to explain to him, ‘Look at the system, you have everything,’” Fr. Ponnaiyan said. “But he said ‘no.’ Yeah, that’s what happened … I would’ve preferred to see an American so I could have talked to him and he could’ve better understood me.” 

Misinformed employee created hours of work

One misinformed employee and a five-minute interview put Fr. Ponnaiyan on a month-long course that delayed his start at his parish and cost the Archdiocese of Milwaukee countless hours of work to undo what was done. 

After spending the night talking to Fr. Ponnaiyan on Skype, Fr. Heppe told Rick Tank, director of personnel services for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, what happened. 

Tank relayed the message to Barbra Graham, attorney for Catholic Charities.

“I think what happened was they got confused for the visa (Fr. Ponnaiyan) was applying to have,” Graham said of the situation.

She said she thinks the consulate thought Fr. Ponnaiyan was applying for a technology visa instead of a religious visa.

“They asked him to bring this really bizarre set of stuff,” Graham said. 

Emails given to the Catholic Herald show the correspondence between Fr. Ponnaiyan and Fr. Heppe, acting as the messenger.

“Once they knew about it, that became their number one priority,” Fr. Heppe said of Graham and Tank. “They were on the job every day getting the information that they needed.”

List of documents baffling

In an email on June 6 at 1:19 a.m. central time, addressed to Fr. Heppe and Tank, roughly an hour after he spoke to Fr. Heppe on Skype, Fr. Ponnaiyan explains what the consulate told him he needed in order to get back into the country.

  • A copy of the petition with all the supporting documents as filled with USCIS.
  • A copy of the employment contact or letter of agreement singed by you and the petitioner
  • A letter (on letterhead) from the personnel department at the U.S. end client company (the job site where you will actually work), stating that there is a vacancy for you.
  • A detailed description of the project to which you will be assigned. Include a complete technical description of the project, employer, timeline, current status, number of employees assigned, work site location, and marketing analysis for the final project.
  • A complete itinerary of services or engagements (including both internal and client projects) that specifies the dates of each service, and the names and addresses of the actual employers, and the names and addresses of the locations where the services will be performed for the duration of the petition.

The list of documents baffled people in the archdiocese.

“When they asked for his marketing plan and end dates, that’s just not what you do,” Graham said. “When was the last time you heard about a priest doing a marketing plan?”

Graham was beside herself, thinking, “It doesn’t make sense with the type of visa he was asking to get.”

The Archdiocese of Milwaukee sent Fr. Ponnaiyan the documents they had submitted earlier in the process for him to resubmit in person.

“There was nothing new,” Fr. Ponnaiyan said of the response of the Indian consulate. “They can make it really hell for you. If they don’t want to give you a visa, even if you have all the required documents, they can just simply tell you, ‘We need more proof to issue you a visa.’”

Tension was growing in the archdiocese

“We spend a lot of time working with our group (of international priests),” Fr. Heppe said. “And they’re really dedicated and they really want to work here, and it’s very frustrating when we do our best and follow protocol, and doing our best and following protocol isn’t enough.”

Graham reached out to the consulate via email to try and help the situation.

“I got a response from the consulate saying it’s still a work visa,” Graham said. “This is going nowhere.”

When Tank informed Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki, he suggested contacting Congressman Paul Ryan, but they could not get ahold of anyone in his office. They tried Sen. Tammy Baldwin, where a representative of her office told the archdiocese they don’t feel confident with immigration issues.

Meanwhile, in India, Fr. Ponnaiyan checked the status of his visa daily. And each day the status remained the same — “being processed.”

He tried calling, hoping to find someone to listen to his case, but without success.

“They would say, ‘Usually this one would take six months … we can’t promise you that,’” Fr. Ponnaiyan said. “I (got) so frustrated. Wow, six months. You want me to just wait here for nothing? Nothing of my own mistake?”

While he waited, Fr. Ponnaiyan spent time with family and friends.

“It was a wonderful time but I was little bit nervous because I wasn’t sure when I was going to get the visa process done,” he said.

The frustration and anxiety was felt in Milwaukee. 

“We tried to produce all the documents that he asked for and most of them were duplicates of what they already had,” Fr. Heppe said. “Once it became clear that they had everything they needed, we needed to get some intervention.”

Different route proves successful

Graham worked on the problem daily. She knew going through the Indian authorities would be fruitless, so she tried a different route.

“I emailed this very nice man at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., who has helped me, maybe seven or eight years ago when I had a problem with one of the U.S. worker visas,” she said. “He was out of town but he emailed one of his colleagues, who emailed the consulate and all of a sudden there was no problem.”

On June 30, when he went online for his daily visa check, Fr. Ponnaiyan saw it had been updated, “Bring passport for visa.”

“I went there and submitted my passport and they said it would take three more days to go through the consulate and then they would issue the visa,” he said. 

Three days later he was granted his visa and prepared to come back to the U.S.

“Knowing that it shouldn’t have happened, you really get mad about it,” he said. “It could’ve been six months.”

Fr. Heppe realizes occasionally these kinds of precautions are necessary.

“You hope that these glitches make the environment in all of our countries safer,” the priest said. “You hope that they’re making decisions based on the safety of their individuals.”

On July 8, following a trip that took him over 30 hours to complete, Fr. Ponnaiyan was in Milwaukee and grateful for the work done to help him get there.

“It was a good support system that I had from here,” he said. “They really responded well to me.”

Had it not been for the daily communication and the work done stateside, Fr. Ponnaiyan would have spent a lot more time in India than necessary.

“Immigration is insanely complicated,” Graham said. “Common sense doesn’t run a lot of the law behind immigration.”

(Next week: Read about another international priest’s challenges with the system, as well as more about Catholic Charities role in assisting priests and seminarians with immigration issues.)