Bonita law firm helps bring nuns, monks from Vietnam to U.S.

By MARIA ZILBERMAN, Naples Daily News, June 23, 2010

BONITA SPRINGS, FL (USA) -- Andrew Solis didn’t expect the visa petitions to fill boxes.

“The applications themselves are about that big,” he said, hovering his hand inches above the table.

That’s without the books and DVDs that have to accompany them.

Solis and his law firm, Cohen & Grigsby in Bonita Springs, are working to bring 52 nuns and monks to the United States. Seven arrived in California on Monday. On Thursday, Solis travels to meet them.

The firm has filed 30 and has 22 more non-immigrant religious worker visa petitions to go.

The monks and nuns are members of Bat Nha Monastery in Vietnam. The members of Bat Nha follow the teachings of Thich Nhat Hahn, founder of the Unified Buddhist Church.

The Florida Community of Mindfulness practices in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hahn and holds meditation in Naples and other areas of the southwest. However, Solis said there are no plans to bring the nuns and monks who arrive in California to Florida.

Reports state that about 380 nuns and monks were violently forced out of the Bat Nha monastery in late September by government-backed mobs. Since then, the monastics have found refuge in another temple, but police harassment continues.

Solis, a native Floridian born to Cuban immigrants, learned of the religious violence when he attended a meditation retreat in August.

Thich Nhat Hahn was a speaker.

“The really amazing part of this story is the commitment these young people have to their vocation. In spite of all the danger, the threats, they’re committed,” he said. “That’s a great story, I think.”

Solis can’t remember how, or how many years ago, he came across Thich Nhat Hahn’s books.

“It made sense to me,” he said.

So did helping the Unified Buddhist Church.

Though Solis, 46, was born in the U.S., his siblings weren’t and his parents came to the country as exiles. He knew he had benefited from the help of others, particularly friends his father made as a student at the University of Florida in the 1950s.

So in January, Solis contacted the Unified Buddhist Church and offered his help. The visa application process was the answer.

Solis and his colleagues began by filing five applications at a time. With each batch, they would perfect the process.

The Unified Buddhist Church is the official petitioning group for the monastics. The applications require assorted information about the legitimacy of the petitioning organization and the religious workers. That’s where the informational books and DVDs help.

While Solis and partners have been providing legal counsel pro bono, the Unified Buddhist Church has had a hefty tab to pay _ $1,320 per petition. The application is $320, and the premium processing fee, which speeds the process of application review to within 15 days, is $1,000.

One of the first steps in any application review is a site visit, said Sharon Scheidhauer, spokeswoman for United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, which processes the applications.

“We do visit all of these sites, absolutely, before we even go much further into the applications,” she said.

That rule was added after a 2005 assessment of fraud in religious worker petitions.

The site visits are unannounced and used to verify if the organization exists and operates how the petitioner claims. Only organizations that have successfully passed a site inspection are allowed to file with premium processing.

Without premium processing, the applications take about five months to process, Scheidhauer said.

So far, 27 of the applications have been approved, and the other three are pending more information. Solis soon will start preparing the next 10.

In fiscal 2009, Citizenship and Immigration Services received 5,897 non-immigrant religious worker applications. The bureau approved 4,680.

Once Citizenship and Immigration Services approves an application, the petitioning worker must appear at a U.S. embassy before an R-1 visa is granted. R-1 visas are how worldwide religious organizations are able to temporarily rotate their members. The initial visa allows entrance for up to 2.5 years and can be renewed for another 2.5 years.

The Unified Buddhist Church has two main religious centers in the United States: Deer Park Monastery in Escondido, Calif., and Blue Cliff Monastery in Pine Bush, N.Y.

Deer Park is where the monastics from Bat Nha will live and practice.

Solis said the presence of the monastics from Bat Nha will help the understaffed monastery, but the hope is for discussions between the church and Vietnamese government to proceed and allow the monastics to return to their monastery.

“They’re not seeking asylum. They’re not coming here to stay. They don’t want to stay,” Solis said.

Members of Bat Nha also are going to affiliated monasteries in Germany, France and Thailand. Thich Nhat Hahn and the church are based in southwestern France.
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