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June 03, 2008

Deportation of Priest

WASHINGTON LETTER May-30-2008 (920 words)

The Border Is In South Dakota For Irish Priest With
Immigration Woes

By Patricia Zapor
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- 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

"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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