As a Jain house of worship sits unfinished in Bartlett, officials scale back request to allow stonemasons from India into the U.S.
- By Russell Working Tribune reporter
- March 19, 2008
- Over the last 19 months, officials of the Jain temple in Bartlett have spent $35,000 on lawyers and fees in an attempt to import five skilled stonemasons from India to help assemble a new house of worship.
- They sent a consultant to Delhi, built a chain-link fence around a stack of marble carvings in the parking lot, and pleaded with immigration authorities for an answer.
Their first attempt to get visas for the workers failed, so temple officials have started the process again, with a smaller request. They found an Indian immigrant in Detroit who is a skilled temple stonemason, meaning visas are needed for just four craftsmen.
The renewed effort comes as U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is considering amending regulations for religious worker visas. Hindus and Jains say current regulations are geared toward Judeo-Christian faiths, with an emphasis on priests, cantors and even ritual slaughter supervisors rather than stone carvers.
The Jain Society of Metropolitan Chicago is one of a number of Indian religious centers from New York to Hawaii that have struggled to get government approval to bring in the silpis, or stone carvers, who are needed to construct their intricate temples.
For the Jains in Bartlett, the delays resulted in reduced donations, as the leadership was expecting $2 million to $3 million to pour in after the temple dedication. Members are reluctant to give money when they see no progress.
"It's just a nightmare," said Prabodh Vaidya, chairman of the board of trustees.
The federal government is redefining religious workers in ways officials believe may better take into account the concerns of Eastern faiths. In the past, there was a problem with bogus applications, with a government study finding a 33 percent fraud rate, according to Citizenship and Immigration Services.
"The goal is to eliminate the fraud," said CIS spokeswoman Mary Lou Cabrera.
Some temples already are seeing a change in attitude. Construction had stalled last year at Kauai's Hindu Monastery in Hawaii, said Sannyasin Arumugaswami, managing editor of Hinduism Today Magazine. But during a visit to India in February, Arumugaswami said a U.S. official told him to resubmit the documents for the stone carvers, saying it would henceforth consider silpis as religious workers.
The key to the temples' argument is that, although the silpi is not a cleric, he sees his calling as a religious duty in the way a nurse in a Roman Catholic hospital might.
"They say: 'This is our dharma. This is our god-given work," he said. "They take their shoes off before they go to work at the temple. They worship their tools before they start the day. There's an annual festival which is to bless the tools and the work site."
George R. Willy, a Houston attorney who was serving as a consultant for the Bartlett temple in the previous case, said it usually takes a few weeks for a visa to be accepted or denied. But his office spent months trying to pry an answer out of U.S. officials in India.
"In Delhi, we tried and we tried and we tried, and nothing happened," Willy said. "And these officials don't even give these folks [at the temple] even a word about what they were up to and why they were not issuing it."
Before, the temple tried to bring in the workers through an Indian-American contractor. Since that approach failed, they now plan to apply directly to bring in the workers while also hiring the man in Detroit.
"I can control only things that I do," Vaidya said. "I cannot control what other people do. Eventually we have to get this done. And somehow or other, we will get this done."