Monk Phra Bunphithak Jomthong entered the U.S. four years ago on a religious visa and has since devoted himself to serving a burgeoning Buddhist community in Southern California. Barefoot and clad in a saffron robe, Mr. Jomthong recently gave what amounts to the most accurate job description he has: "to share Buddhist practices and to promote peace and harmony among people."
But the U.S. government wants to deport the 47-year-old monk, after denying him permanent U.S. residency, or a green card, on the grounds that he was employed without authorization after his temporary religious visa lapsed. Now, Mr. Jomthong, a citizen of Thailand, is fighting in federal district court and immigration court for the right to remain in the country.
The monk entered the U.S. in early 2005 on an R-1 visa, a non-immigrant visa category accorded to individuals who perform religious duties for up to five years. The program was created in 1990 to enable churches, mosques and other religious institutions to fill vacant positions; the foreigners are allowed to be in the U.S. solely to perform religious work and can apply for a green card.
The State Department issued 13,002 R-1 visas in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2008. However, the U.S. government has tightened oversight of the program in recent years. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, concern grew that the visas could be misused by terrorists or radical groups. Then in late 2005, a fraud-detection unit of the Department of Homeland Security found that a third of all immigrant religious visas had been granted on the basis of fraudulent information.
Agents uncovered churches that existed only on paper and individuals who ended up working at gas station and laundromats.
In Mr. Jomthong's case, the government isn't alleging fraud -- just illegal employment. Mr. Jomthong's attorney asserts that the monk can't be considered an "employee" of Wat Buddhapanya Temple and therefore can't be deported on the grounds of working illegally. Mr. Jomthong "doesn't receive any wages or other remuneration," says Mr. Paparelli, adding that his work is of a voluntary nature.
Immigration authorities hold that a religious occupation or vocation constitutes "employment" under immigration law.
I actually feel bad for this monk. It doesn't seem like he was trying to cheat. I wouldn't consider what he does as employment either, because that goes against Buddhist precepts. But my opinion doesn't matter, because according to US law being a monk is a vocation.
On the other hand, I don't know what gives him entitlement to a Green Card.
He is lucky, because if the situation were reversed, he would have found himself without any right to stay in Thailand, probably end up in jail, and certainly would not be entitled to permanent residency.