Father Cathal Gallagher is bringing his parishioners in rural South Dakota

Washington, May 30, 2008 (vaticans.org) - Father Cathal Gallagher is bringing his parishioners in rural South Dakota an unwelcome lesson in the fine details of U.S. immigration law as they try to help him fight his pending deportation.

Father Gallagher, 58, a Columban missionary, went to the state a decade ago at the invitation of Bishop Robert J. Carlson, then-head of the Diocese of Sioux Falls, S.D. The Irish priest currently is pastor of parishes in three prairie towns, the largest of which is St. Thomas Aquinas in DeSmet, population just over 1,000.

After spending 22 years working in Japan, Father Gallagher was surprised by how taken he was with South Dakota, he told Catholic News Service
in a May 29 phone interview.

"I liked this place, the prairies, the people," he said, and as soon as he was eligible, he applied for permanent U.S. residency. He came as close as being told five years ago that his "green card" was approved and would arrive within two weeks, only to learn much later that his application was actually denied.

Now, unless the Department of Homeland Security office of Citizenship and Immigration Services, or CIS, can be persuaded to reverse its denial of his application, Father Gallagher will have to head back to Ireland by July 1.

After spending most of his priesthood in Japanese missions, the native of Donegal, Ireland, came to the United States in 1996 to participate in an alcohol treatment program at Guest House in Rochester, Minn., he explained. He stayed on for a year afterward, during which he became acquainted with Bishop Carlson, who was undergoing cancer treatment at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester. (Bishop Carlson is now head of the Diocese of Saginaw, Mich.)

At the bishop's urging, he decided to give ministry in rural South Dakota a try. At first, Father Gallagher held a religious worker's visa. But in 2001 he submitted the paperwork for permanent U.S. residency.

"I kind of had my heart set, " he said. "Yes, this is where I'd like to spend the rest of my career."

What followed has become a seven-year adventure in the U.S. immigration system, with help throughout the process from the Sioux Falls Diocese and a Washington-based attorney with the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, known as CLINIC. Despite that expertise, Father Gallagher said he only recently learned that his application had been denied because CIS concluded he had fallen "out of status" for a matter of weeks.

Anne Marie Gibbons, director of CLINIC's program for religious worker visas, did not work on Father Gallagher's case. However, explaining some of the general problems she and her staff encounter, she said it's common for someone's visa that authorizes him to live and work in the U.S. to expire while he's waiting to hear the results of an application for another visa or for permanent residency.

Gibbons said religious workers are especially prone to out-of-status problems because, unlike other categories of workers or family-visa holders, they are not permitted to submit simultaneous applications that might protect them from a lapse in coverage. It can take years for some kinds of visa applications to be processed. Recently, backlogged fingerprint checks alone have bogged down cases for as long as four or five years.

The problem is one of a variety of issues with religious worker visas that CLINIC has been trying to get the federal government to address as it reworks regulations for the visas. They were outlined in a May 15 letter to U.S. bishops from the chairman of their migration committee, Bishop John C. Wester of Salt Lake City, and Coadjutor Bishop Jaime Soto of Sacramento, Calif., who is chairman of the CLINIC board of directors.

Father Gallagher recognizes that as a missionary priest he perhaps is being called to minister somewhere else in the world. But at the same time he hopes he will get to stay -- he hasn't started packing yet -- and is pursuing whatever threads of possibilities he's given.

Patti Ward, a St. Thomas Aquinas parishioner, hosted a meeting at her house May 29 with Father Gallagher and staff members of Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., who are trying to persuade CIS to reopen the case. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., also phoned Father Gallagher, offering to ask the White House to intervene.

"We're keeping hopeful that something can be done," Ward said. "But we can see the writing on the wall."

The same day, a prayer service at St. Thomas Aquinas drew hundreds of people, she said, packing the church with Catholics from the four parishes Father Gallagher has served, as well as ministers from local churches and others from the area.

Both Ward and Father Gallagher said his immigration problems have been eye-opening for the community.

"None of us has ever been involved in immigration problems," Ward said. "Some people don't want to understand. They're just mad."

Not only are they angry that their beloved pastor may have to leave, but some see the Latino immigrant workers at nearby dairy farms and factories and make comparisons, said Ward.

"They don't understand how (the Latinos) can be in the U.S. and Father can't," she said.

Father Gallagher, however, said that "here in the Dakotas' people's eyes have been opened that No. 1, you don't have to have a Hispanic face or speak Spanish to have immigration problems, and No. 2, the government system isn't working as it should."

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