In 2009, researcher Jeff Jacobsen wrote about Scientology’s documented problems bringing foreigners to the United States to work in its “Sea Organization.” Anecdotally, ex-Scientologists say that the church relies heavily on foreigners to accept jobs under the bizarre working conditions of the Sea Org, which requires signing a billion-year contract and working 16-hour days, seven days a week, often at menial labor jobs, and for just pennies an hour.
Scientology brings such workers to this country under a special visa — the Non-Immigrant Religious Worker or R-1 visa — under the idea that they’re coming here to perform religious duties at a bona fide tax exempt religious organization, which are the requirements to qualify. Some of those applications had been denied by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and had been appealed, and those appeal documents were public. Based on them, Jacobsen found that Scientology had a hard time explaining how Sea Org employees, who often work in menial or clerk positions, should be considered “religious” workers. He also found cases where the workers themselves were bewildered by the entire process, and that they found themselves virtually indentured servants in the US, making next to nothing and pretending to be “religious” workers when often they were just doing janitorial work.
But how big was this issue? For years, we’ve heard stories of large numbers of immigrants being brought to the US to work in the Sea Org and staff Scientology facilities, particularly its “spiritual mecca,” the Flag Land Base in Clearwater, Florida.
“Why would a religious group need to bring in workers to the United States?” Jacobsen asked. And just as importantly, “Who would want such a job, where you sign a billion year contract, work  or more hours per week, and get $50 a week plus room and board?”
Now, for the first time, we have a better idea of the scope of Scientology’s reliance on the R-1 visa program, thanks to researcher and friend to the Underground Bunker, R.M. Seibert, who used the MuckRock investigative website to obtain a stunning disclosure of visa records from the USCIS.
Thanks to a change in regulations that took effect in 2009, data about the number of visa applications being made by specific tax-exempt organizations became legally searchable under the Freedom of Information Act. Seibert asked for, and received, a breakdown of the total number of visa applications from January 2009 to June 2015 that had been submitted by organizations with “Church of Scientology” in their names, along with data on whether the applications had been approved and from which country the worker was originating.
According to the USCIS, since 2009….
— Scientology entities have applied for 3,447 religious worker visas. This does not count Scientology entities which do not have “Church of Scientology” in their names, which are numerous (the Religious Technology Center, Church of Spiritual Technology, American Saint Hill Organization, Association for Better Living and Education, etc.)
— Of those applications, 92 percent were approved. Others are pending appeal.
— The vast majority — 75 percent — of applying workers were headed to the Flag Land Base in Clearwater, the Scientology facility that makes more money than the rest of the orgs combined, according to former top Scientology officials.
— The single biggest source of applicants — 600 workers — was Russia, with Italy, Mexico, Hungary, Canada, Taiwan, Ukraine, Venezuela, Germany, and Colombia rounding out the top ten sources.
Why, we asked Scientology spokeswoman Karin Pouw in an email, does the “world’s fastest growing religion” need to import so many workers to take Sea Org jobs in the US? So far, we haven’t received a response.
Scientology routinely claims to have millions of members, but multiple lines of evidence suggest worldwide membership is closer to 40,000, with about 3,500 in the Sea Org, according to former top Scientology executives who had access to enrollment figures and personnel records. These visa records suggest that the Sea Org’s very existence, then, relies heavily on convincing Russians and Italians and Mexicans and workers from other countries to come to the United States to staff the Flag Land Base.
“Those numbers are outrageous. It’s outrageous for an organization that is so small,” says former top Scientology spokesman Mike Rinder. “Even if you take seriously the number they advertise for the size of staff at Flag — two thousand people — those visa numbers suggest that since 2009 they’ve had a complete turnover of that many people.”
We’ve talked to former Scientology Sea Org workers who came to the US on R-1 visas, and they tell us about working at janitorial or clerk positions, even though they were in the country to be “ministers” in the Sea Org. In fact, the rule changes the USCIS adopted were supposed to crack down on fraud, which was widespread in the R-1 program. Homeland Security, in 2005, estimated that up to a third of R-1 visa applications were fraudulent.
One of the organizations that publicly opposed the rule changes was the Church of Scientology. Here’s Jeff Jacobsen again…
The Church of Scientology wrote against making the rules tighter. Glen Stilo, secretary of Scientology’s Flag Services organization in Clearwater, Florida, explained in a letter that he feared use of the visas will be restricted to strictly religious duties. “A small percentage of our religious order perform work at our retreat that may not be considered ‘religious functions,’ such as administrative work unique to the ministry section of our church, or upkeep of church property and grounds. However, all of these religious workers have taken lifelong vows, are performing functions in accordance with our scriptures and ecclesiastical orders, and are therefore working in accordance with their religious vocation regardless of the type of work they perform at CSFSO.”
With its applications going through with a 92 percent approval rate, Scientology doesn’t seem to be suffering under the new rules. But the rule change made it possible for Seibert to get records of how many applications Scientology entities are making. Here’s the breakdown of which Scientology entities have been making those applications since 2009…
Scientology has become so accustomed to recruiting foreign workers, the extremely bureaucratic organization has institutionalized it, says Chris Shelton, a former Sea Org official who left the church in 2013.
“There was an R-1 visa drill,” Shelton says. “It was run by the recruiter who understood how to get the visas. There was an application process, and there was a way to fill it out so that it would go through. I was never trained in that, but I saw it happen over and over again.”
Shelton was in a position of management for the Sea Org’s western US operation, and he was kept informed as Sea Org recruiters were sent to Mexico to find new workers.
“The recruiters needed bodies. When you’re getting pushed for recruits, you get desperate. And it is a reflection of the desperation that Sea Org members felt to get bodies that they would go to foreign countries to find people who were barely qualified,” he says.
The “recruit pools” in the US had dried up, he adds. “They’re desperate. Where do we get more people? There’s a high attrition rate in the Sea Org. They have to fill those holes somehow,” he says.
We recently talked to a Russian immigrant and former Sea Org worker who asked us not to use her name. Her mother had come over to the US to join the Sea Org, and had spent years working at one of the facilities in the Flag Land Base, initially as a night cleaner. Eventually, her mother worked up to running one of the base’s hotels.
“It doesn’t really sound like religious work,” we remarked.
“No!” she said with a laugh. “Absolutely not.”
The woman herself had also come to the US on a religious worker visa, and then had spent her time at the Flag Land Base “cleaning and housekeeping. And then construction. I was helping to build apartments for three months,” she told us.
Construction crews made up of “religious” workers from Russia being paid about forty cents an hour when they were paid at all — was this what the R-1 visa was intended to produce in the US?
Russia has emerged as Scientology’s favorite recruit pool in recent years. Here’s the breakdown for all applicants since 2009…
“If the people from those countries are going into the Sea Org, they should be going into Sea Org installations in those areas. But instead they’re going to the US because no one in the US goes near Scientology if they’ve heard of Google,” says Rinder, the former church spokesman. “It’s more evidence that everything they say about their ‘international expansion’ is horseshit.”
In its press releases, Scientology emphasizes that it has opened up new church buildings around the world in its “Ideal Org” program, replacing older orgs with newer ones. But those buildings largely stand empty, and there’s increasing evidence that Scientology is suffering from severe staffing shortages as it looks for new workers from foreign countries.
And Mike Rinder says that the US government has noticed.
“ICE approached me about the religious worker visa situation. They were asking about this, about people being brought into the country by Scientology,” Rinder says, referring to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Homeland Security’s law enforcement branch.
Like other government inquiries he’s experienced, however — like the FBI investigation into human trafficking in 2009-2010 — Rinder cautions that the government has shown little fortitude for taking on Scientology, even with evidence that it’s abusing the law.
“They’re afraid to take this on,” he says.
Bonus photos from our tipsters
L. Ron Hubbard’s tales from the Golden Age, brought to life for rapt Cub Scouts!
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Learn about Scientology with our numerous series with experts…
BLOGGING DIANETICS: We read Scientology’s founding text cover to cover with the help of L.A. attorney and former church member Vance Woodward
UP THE BRIDGE: Claire Headley and Bruce Hines train us as Scientologists
GETTING OUR ETHICS IN: Jefferson Hawkins explains Scientology’s system of justice
SCIENTOLOGY MYTHBUSTING: Historian Jon Atack discusses key Scientology concepts
Other links: Shelly Miscavige, ten years gone | The Lisa McPherson story told in real time | The Cathriona White stories | The Leah Remini ‘Knowledge Reports’ | Hear audio of a Scientology excommunication | Scientology’s little day care of horrors | Whatever happened to Steve Fishman? | Felony charges for Scientology’s drug rehab scam | Why Scientology digs bomb-proof vaults in the desert | PZ Myers reads L. Ron Hubbard’s “A History of Man” | Scientology’s Master Spies | Scientology’s Private Dancer | The mystery of the richest Scientologist and his wayward sons | Scientology’s shocking mistreatment of the mentally ill | Scientology boasts about assistance from Google | The Underground Bunker’s Official Theme Song | The Underground Bunker FAQ
Our Guide to Alex Gibney’s film ‘Going Clear,’ and our pages about its principal figures…
Jason Beghe | Tom DeVocht | Sara Goldberg | Paul Haggis | Mark “Marty” Rathbun | Mike Rinder | Spanky Taylor | Hana Whitfield