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Blog: Trafficking and Oversight Issues with R-1 Visas

July 13, 2021

By: Emily Tubb

The R-1 visa has been highlighted in popular media over the last few decades because it has granted several infamous terrorists legal ability to be in the United States, including the perpetrator of the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center. Most recently, however, it has come under scrutiny for a Robbinsville, New Jersey, case alleging human trafficking and fraud of nearly 200 R-1 visa holders.

Meant only for religious workers and those on vocation, R-1 visa holders must be employed at least part-time by a non-profit religious organization or tangential branch of such a non-profit and are authorized access to the United States under the pretense that work will be performed in a religious occupation or vocation. Because many of these workers come to engage in vocational or missionary work, there is no established minimum wage employers must pay these workers. This has chronically caused not only an opening for fraud but a weak point for labor trafficking and requires immediate action to remedy.

In May 2021, the Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS), described as a “volunteer-driven organization dedicated to improving society through fostering the Hindu ideals of faith, unity, and selfless service,” was sued under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act and under the Fair Labor Standards Act for “forced labor, trafficking with respect to forced labor, document servitude, conspiracy, and confiscation of immigration documents in the course of and with the intent to engage in fraud in foreign labor contracting.”

According to the lawsuit, the plaintiffs—all members of the Dalit “untouchables” Hindu caste—were allegedly recruited by BAPS to build a 146,420 square foot temple permitted by the Robbinsville Township Zoning Board, authorizing them as legal employers under the jurisdiction of New Jersey’s labor and wage standards. R-1 workers allege they were forced to perform grueling physical work for up to 13 hours per day, 7 days a week, resulting in the death of one worker. Moreover, the plaintiffs allege that BAPS recruited them in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1589(1)-(4), which protects workers who are recruited by means of physical restraint, serious harm, abuse of legal process, or a scheme intended to cause the R-1 workers “to believe that, if they did not perform such labor or services, they or another person would suffer serious harm or physical restraint.” BAPS allegedly “coached [plaintiffs] about what to say [during] U.S. Embassy visa interviews,” sent all wages for the R-1 holders to Indian bank accounts of which there was no direct access, deprived workers of their passports and visas, and threatened to garnish wages if they spoke to anyone outside of the temple.

Created in 1990, R-1 visas appear to be a regular target of fraud, with some government reports indicating that nearly one-third of all petitions are fraudulent. Yet little has been done to reform the visa, which is capped at 5,000 per year. Because of the well-intended nature of this visa, human traffickers from certain countries prefer it over other nonimmigrant visas, particularly because some places like India and China are ineligible for H-2B or H-2A visas and due to the fact that holders are initially allowed to remain in the United States for a longer duration without an extension.

The chronic fraud of the R-1 visa class showcases an important phenomenon requiring a stronger commitment to vetting sponsoring employers and a clear identification as to what visa holders will be doing once in the United States, particularly as the Biden Administration has lessened oversight for other visa categories. Re-vetting once this small class of visa holders are in the country will ensure that they are in compliance with the visa standards as determined by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. The failure to do so has presented a clear danger to American lives and R-1 worker lives. This unequal application of labor standards has created a work environment with little oversight that places American workers at a disadvantage and invites vulnerable classes to the Nation under false pretenses—subjecting them to the dangers of trafficking.

Emily Tubb serves as a Policy Analyst for the America First Policy Institute (AFPI).