for Hinduism Today on Feb. 17, 2008
CHENNAI, INDIA, February 8, 2008: Hinduism Today's managing editor, Sannyasin Arumugaswami, reports learning from the head of the nonimmigrant visa section of the US Consulate in Chennai that the State Department in Washington, DC, has issued an "advisory opinion" approving the granting of the religious worker visa to Hindu temple artisans, sthapati and silpis. This much welcomed decision overturns the Consulate's policy begun in early 2007 to stop granting religious worker visas to sthapatis and silpis. As a result, a number of temple projects were thrown into a state of uncertainty, particularly the Iraivan Temple being built at Hinduism Today's headquarters in Kauai, Hawaii. This long-term, US$16 million project was rocked by the Consulate's refusal in March of 2007 to grant visas to the fourth team of stone carvers. Today's decision removes the issue and the fourth team's visas are expected to be issued momentarily.
At this point, HPI does not have the exact wording of the advisory opinion, but by the description given by the head of the nonimmigrant visa section, it appears to be broadly encompassing of both the stone carvers used on Iraivan Temple and the plaster artisans used for decoration of most temples in the US. Temples who have had visas denied for silpis should re-approach the consulates.
It is vitally important that temples adhere closely to the exact provisions of the religious worker visa. First, silpis sponsored by a temple can only work for that temple. They cannot be "loaned" or hired out to any other organization. This is against the visa rules and invites deportation and possible sanctions against the temple. Second, the silpis are being brought as artisans and not general construction workers. The Consulate is concerned that silpis brought as religious workers have been doing ordinary structural concrete work on the temples that should be done by local American workers. Temples should be explicit in their job description of the silpi's work, and adhere to that job description. The visa category has come under intense scrutiny for abuse in the last year, and the USCIS has been sending officials to conduct on-site inspections at temples (as well as churches, mosques and other institutions making use of the religious worker visa).
This advisory opinion was issued in specific response to a request from Saiva Siddhanta Church, parent body of Kauai's Hindu Monastery, Iraivan Temple, Hinduism Today and HPI. The request was supported by the Hindu American Foundation, the Council of Hindu Temples of North America, the Hindu Mandir Executive Committee and several other organizations. The congressional offices of Rep. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii's second district, Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii and Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts intervened forcefully on the Church's behalf.