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Church Alleges Religious Rights Violations in Leader's Immigration Case

October 30, 2023 (2 min read)

Phaedra Haywood, Santa Fe New Mexican, Oct. 28, 2023

"A Santa Fe County church known for its use of a hallucinogenic tea has filed a federal lawsuit against the Homeland Security secretary, alleging the agency’s failure to process immigration forms for the group’s leader violates his religious rights.  Jose Carlos Garcia oversees nine U.S. congregations of Centro Espírita Beneficente União do Vegetal — better known as UDV. His official title is general representative mestre, according to the complaint, filed in U.S. District Court.  The job requires Garcia to attend meetings, officiate religious services and mentor lower-level leaders around the world, the complaint states.  “It is of essential importance to [Garcia’s] free exercise of religion that he be able to travel freely to attend to these essential religious activities,” the complaint states.  It alleges U.S. Customs and Border Protection recently has been “unnecessarily confronting and delaying” Garcia’s and his wife’s entry to the U.S. at airports and demanding to see reentry permits.  The Garcias applied for reentry permits Jan. 3, the complaint says, but the petitions are still pending. The permits allow permanent residents to return to the U.S. after traveling abroad for up to two years without obtaining a visa. Recently, the pair were told they might not be allowed back in the U.S. without the permits if they leave again.  The couple, who have been permanent residents of the U.S. since December 2019, are among many people in recent years who have asked the U.S. District Court in Albuquerque for help getting immigration paperwork processed in a timely manner by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Dozens of similar complaints have been filed since 2021, according to online court records.  Court filings show voluntary dismissal of many of the cases, indicating they might have been resolved within months.  Among the complaints:

  • An El Salvadorian woman said she had been unable to travel outside the U.S. to attend her father’s funeral.
  • A Brazilian architect who entered the country on a student visa to attend the University of New Mexico sought renewal of a permit allowing her to work legally.
  • A Pakistani man with a master’s degree in chemical engineering who worked for a biotechnology startup sought permission to work while his permanent residency was pending.
  • An Austrian man who came to the U.S. to work as a research assistant professor at UNM sought a work permit while his request for permanent residency was pending.
  • A high school graduate from China sought documentation allowing him to study and receive in-state-tuition at UNM.
  • An Iranian man with permanent residency sought immigration documents for his wife and children.
  • A nurse from the Philippines who worked for an Albuquerque hospital during the pandemic sought residency as the spouse of a U.S. citizen."