Two Massachusetts imams accused in immigration scheme

Federal immigration agents arrested imams from two Boston-area mosques Wednesday, alleging they were involved in a scheme that provided religious worker visas to immigrants who used them to enter the United States and work instead as gas station attendants, truck drivers, and factory laborers.

Hafiz Abdul Hannan, imam, or leader, of the Islamic Society of Greater Lowell in Chelmsford, and Muhammed Masood, imam, or leader, of the Islamic Center of New England in Sharon, were among 33 people taken into custody nationwide after a multi-year investigation led by agents in Boston and New York, said Paula Grenier, a spokeswoman for US Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“‘This was a nationwide religious worker visa fraud scheme designed to help illegal aliens,” said Grenier. “These people had to be solely engaged in religious employment, and in many cases were not.”

Under the Religious Worker Program, started in 1990, churches, synagogues, and mosques can ask the government to approve visas for foreigners to fill vacant positions. Each year, several thousand visas are issued each year that permit immigrants to enter the United States exclusively for religious employment. To obtain the visa, immigrants must have religious training and experience in their native country. Once here, they are not allowed to hold secular jobs. The religious worker permits can ultimately lead to green cards, or permanent residency.

Under the scheme, described by federal authorities, the immigrants, who were mostly Pakistani, paid a fee to US religious organizations, which then sponsored them for the visas. Some of those arrested did legitimate religious work, but had filed false paperwork to win their own visas, or once here, to sponsor others, said Grenier. Because the investigation is ongoing, she would not say whether the imams are alleged to have sponsored the visas for others or violated their own visas by working secular jobs.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Thursday November 16, 2006.
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