U.S. Religious visas a boon for Islamic Jihadis

U.S. visa program designed to temporarily admit religious workers from other countries may be letting jihadists into the country, security experts and religious leaders warn.The R visa program is for non-immigrant clerics and religious workers and allows successful applicants to stay in the U.S. for up to five years. They are then allowed to apply for a permanent residency under their R-1 status.

But some critics say the visa raises red flags and has long been abused by leaders with extreme views.

"People have come in and tried to come in with this visa to preach their hardline and dangerous views, and then encourage [the] vulnerable to travel back with them where they are further brainwashed and can potentially be used to harm the USA," Adnan Khan, former president of the Council of Pakistan American Affairs, told Fox News. "The solution isn't banning innocent Muslims and migration, but looking at visas like this one which have raised red flags and caused trouble in the past."

Khan also said several letters have been written to federal agencies over the past four years concerning the R program, but they have failed to get a response.

"We want dialogue with Homeland Security and all the agencies on this," he continued. "We want to be sure no one can come here and spread hate."

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The R visa program, which also extends temporary residency to spouses and unmarried children under the age of 21, worries military experts.

Col. James Williamson, who founded a group that advocates for U.S. special forces, said the program, which was created in 1990, must be tightened because of the extent to which it makes the U.S. vulnerable to jihadi attacks.

"The administration should at least temporarily suspend this dangerous loophole in our immigration process," he said. "But they should brace for backlash. In spite of applying equally to all religions, it'll be maligned and portrayed as another form of a Muslim ban."

While some have raised varying concerns over the R program, others assert that its pros outweigh its cons: Allowing foreigners to pursue their pious calling, gain extensive knowledge in the U.S., impart their existing knowledge to Americans and in turn give Americans the chance to pursue religious endeavors abroad.

"The R visa program facilitates the free exercise of religion by Americans. Most R-1 visa holders are coming to the U.S. to temporarily preach in an established U.S. church, synagogue, mosque, which is supported by American citizens," James Wolf of the California-based immigration law firm Visawolf said. "Usually their coming to the U.S. is part of an informal exchange of religious workers that occurs internationally.”

Unlike other immigrant visas, which are doled out in limited numbers, there are no quotas for the R-1 visa. Statistics regarding countries or religions that have received the visa are not documented.

Between 2012 and 2016, the U.S. issued 23,029 R-1 visas – averaging 4,605 per year – as well as 7,637 R-2 visas for spouses and children, or about 1,528 annually.

Red flags about the program have been raised for years. In 2004, seven top officials of the Holy Land Foundation – then the largest Muslim charity in the country – were indicted for providing material and upward of $12 million in financial support to the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas. The indictment stated that several of the religious leaders established the now-defunct charity by submitting false R visa applications on behalf of more than 200 immigrants from the Middle East.