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Scientology’s Secret Immigrant Workforce Exposes Decades of Exploitation

September 08, 2022 (2 min read)

Kevin T. Dugan, Documented, New York Magazine, Sept. 8, 2022

"... For the past year, I’ve been corresponding with more than three dozen former Scientologists hailing from 12 countries on five continents. Some joined the church when founder L. Ron Hubbard was still running the show; some left as recently as last summer. Whenever I asked them to talk about their time inside the organization, they didn’t dwell much on Tom Cruise, volcanos-and-aliens cosmology, or any of the sensational stuff that gets the most attention. What they talked about was rules, bureaucracy, jargon, and quotas. The work. For those who were part of Scientology’s operations, especially those who were part of the clergy, known as the Sea Org, their lives revolved around labor. They cleaned, cooked, landscaped, provided child care, stood guard, did construction and demolition, and performed a variety of tasks that brought in money to the church, all for little to no pay. At Scientology bases around the U.S., called orgs, laborers live in dorms and work shifts that are often as long as 16 hours, though a few told me the sessions can stretch beyond 24 hours without breaks to sleep. Over and over, my sources described how feeling unable to leave their orgs or refuse arduous work assignments was akin to involuntary servitude, even slavery.

Scientology isn’t a popular religion; Stephen A. Kent, a professor at the University of Alberta who studies the church, puts its global size at no more than 30,000 people. But it is a rich one, with assets thought to be in the billions, including prime parcels of real estate in major cities like New York and Los Angeles. The money flows in from its own members in the form of fees for audits (a kind of confessional) and courses that are required to rise higher in the church. Pressure campaigns induce believers of every economic class to donate their life savings. In the U.S., though, Scientology has long had a crippling image problem that makes it difficult to attract new members domestically. 

To boost numbers, church leaders have recruited thousands of people from abroad, making heavy use of the R-1 visa program — a strategy that is all but unknown to the general public and has never been fully scrutinized. Federal rules specify that R-1 applicants must have been a member of a given religion for two years and must promise that they are coming to the U.S. to work “solely as a minister or to perform a religious vocation or occupation.” But former Scientologists told me that church officials instructed them to give statements about their work to immigration officials that would clear them to obtain a religious visa — then, once they arrived, found themselves doing nonreligious work for extended periods of time. Such activity could expose Scientology to liability on a number of fronts. ..."