Scientology’s Continuing Abuse of Religious Visas, Human Trafficking and the Farce of Guardianship

We take another look at how Scientology misuses R-1 religious worker visas as it attempts to fill slots in its operations.  It’s no longer able to bring on enough new domestic recruits or even US citizen children of current members to staff up Flag, Pac Base and its other major operations.  We look at the line between accidental stretching of the bounds of the program and outright fraud.  Several reports suggest that Scientology misuses the “guardianship” provisions of the law to mistreat younger R-1 visa holders, crossing the line into human trafficking.

It’s Nothing New

Scientology continues its precipitous decline in the United States. Recruitment of both “publics” (those who purchase services) and its regimented religious order, the Sea Organization, (“Sea Org”), is flat-lining. The “church” has been forced to look elsewhere for staff and adherents, therefore it’s the largest user of visas in the R-1/R-2 Religious Visa Program, despite the church’s minuscule size, relatively to say, the Catholic church. Despite this glut of visas, its ongoing staffing needs are far from being met, to the point that the church must push the limits on all facets of the visa procurement process. While the public face of the church insists membership is “booming”, a detailed analysis says otherwise. Rather than the millions the church claims, current membership currently is estimated at some 20,000 total, an estimated 3,600 of which consists of Sea Org staff, with the remainder public Scientologists, org staff, and other members.

Abuse of the R-1/R-2 program is not new, nor is it restricted to Scientology. The R-1/R-2 program allows religious organizations to bring in workers, initially for up to three years, and can be extended on a case-by-case basis. However, this process is ripe for abuse, as the definition of what constitutes a “religious worker” is highly subjective. What’s unique to the church is the scale in which it exploits the program, primarily for Sea Org membership, especially at its Flag Land Base (FLB), its “Tech Mecca”, in Clearwater, Florida. FLB is where the majority of the church’s more exotic (and most expensive) services are delivered. In a highly regimented hands-on process, adherents are cosseted in style at the church-owned Ft. Harrison Hotel, their services delivery experience stage-managed every step of the way. This labor-intensive “worship” model requires not only the staffing levels commensurate with a 4-star hotel experience, but also the services delivery staff for the various “tech” offerings, such as auditing. Consequently, many of the FLB staff, as well as staff at other significant church properties, tend to be foreign-sourced.  And by sourced, we mean a significant amount, as mentioned in this article by Tony Ortega, specifically, by Ms. Roxanne Siebert:

“… a change in the law that occurred in 2009 made it possible to obtain records of how many R-1 visas were being applied for and granted. So she convinced the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to fork over actual numbers, and they were pretty startling. In the period from 2009 to 2015, various entities of the Church of Scientology had received a total of 3,447 visas for foreign workers, with the single largest source coming from Russia (17 percent) and the single most frequent place they were going to the Flag Land Base in Clearwater, Florida (75 percent).

“Those numbers are outrageous. It’s outrageous for an organization that is so small,” former top Scientology spokesman Mike Rinder told us last year. “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.”

Ortega then adds:

“Now, Seibert has badgered the government into sending us new numbers that show the church continues to rely on these visas to fill Sea Org jobs at their major bases, and again primarily at Flag.

She found that in 2016, Scientology entities arranged for 564 new R-1 visas, and that so far in 2017, there have been another 301. So the new total since 2009, when these numbers first became public because of a change in the law, Scientology has brought in 4,158 “religious” workers to get paid about 40 cents an hour at its major bases”

Keep in mind that the only staff that require an R-1 visa are those in this country strictly as “religious workers”, rather than say local, i.e. US citizens who happen to be org staff; with that in mind, this data becomes even more alarming. Accurate demographic data on Sea Org staffing is extremely difficult to obtain. In vetting web-based anecdotal data, a conversation with Chris Shelton showed that most Sea Org numbers tended to be on the low side, particularly for large installations such as FLB and Pacific Base, (PacBase or “Big Blue”). If we assume that the 2016 estimate of Sea Org membership being anywhere between 3,170 to 4,100, we get an average of 3,600.

Using this estimate, the use of foreign staff, as one of many means of keeping Scientology working, accounts for approximately 454 new foreign workers per year, over the last 8 years. Thus, from 2009 to 2017, R-1 holders accounted for an average of 12.6% of the total membership of the Sea Org. More so, as in any monastic-style organization, there is a certain age-based level of retention at the upper-end of membership. Therefore, as a result of this and other actuarial-based events, this ongoing infusion of foreign-sourced labor may be indicative of a high-level of churn at the younger end of membership throughout the Sea Org.

Mortality is also impacting staffing: when the oldsters pass away, the resultant void is nowhere near being met. Moreover, middle age Sea Org members tend to be in the minority, resulting in a dearth of practical management experience, further complicating efforts at competent staff development and retention. As a result, in order to maintain the façade of success at FLB, and other prestige locations, Scientology appears to be gaming the visa system, by resorting to its usual playbook of intimidation, fraud, and potential criminality. This includes alleged incidents of visa fraud, for example, through the use of questionable guardianships, along with evidence of forced overstaying of visas, as well as the shuffling of staff, and other tactics to ensure staff numbers can support the church’s message of “Super Power Success”.

The Means, Motive, and Opportunity

According to Mike Rinder, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, (ICE), has also noticed:

“ICE approached me about the religious worker visa situation. They were asking about this, about people being brought into the country by Scientology,”

Going on to say that:

“They’re afraid to take this on.”

So government reticence aside, how is Scientology flaunting immigration law, and potentially, criminal law as well? First, as is the case with assessing the existence of any potential crime, we need to examine the means, motive, and opportunity. “Means” is the ability of someone to commit the crime. In the case of Scientology, it’s means would be leveraging its extensive network of adherents and zealots, who harbor an absolute disdain for “wog” or non-Scientology civil and criminal law. This extensive network is backed by an internal dirty tricks operation, the Office of Special Affairs, (OSA), further abetted by a local presence in almost every state in the Union and several international locations.

“Motive” is the reason one commits a crime. If you ask a Scientologist, especially those in the Sea Org, what the overarching goal of Scientology is, the most likely response with be, as written by L. Ron Hubbard in 1965, “a civilization without insanity, without criminals and without war, where the able can prosper and honest beings can have rights, and where Man is free to rise to greater heights, are the aims of Scientology,” often described as “clearing the planet.” That said, the actual day-to-day goals are far more prosaic, given the emphasis on “stats,” or statistics, recruitment being a major metric, delivered to management every Thursday at 2:00 PM. Given Scientology’s current sclerotic level of recruitment, the pressure to get “bodies on staff” is immense, especially into the ranks of the Sea Org. While recruiting occurs all across the Scientology archipelago, the primary loci are Flag, PacBase, and the Class IV orgs.; the pressure is immense, and lends itself to abusive practices in all facets of recruiting.

“Opportunity” is usually disproved by use of an alibi; Given the intense, policy-driven mandates to fill staff roles throughout Scientology, opportunity for questionable behavior is rampant at all levels of the recruitment process. “Alibis” run few and far between in Scientology, as “making it go right” is the default “motive” for a variety of abhorrent behaviors.

The Cycle of Criminality: visa fraud and lip-service guardianship

The diaspora of former Scientologists, represents a significant sample of people harmed by this focus on recruitment at all costs. This is especially true of those recruited on R-1 visas from feeder nations such as Russia, Mexico, and South Africa, as well as the children of Scientologists; the multi-generational Scientology family makes this phenomenon particularly insidious, as it’s highly deterministic and doctrinaire. Scientology doctrine states that children are simply “thetans” in small bodies, i.e. that they are adults for all intents and purposes, and as a result, undue pressure to join the Sea Org can begin as early as age 13. As a result, the recruitment cycle includes several questionable, if not patently illegal behaviors, especially as they relate to the recruitment of minors for the Sea Org. This includes fraudulent guardianship, manual labor and other non-religious activities in contravention of R-1/R-2 requirements, as well as the unsupervised use of minors in roles and responsibilities that contravene State and Federal child labor statues.

Interviews with numerous former Sea Org members, including those specifically tasked with recruitment and guardianship, recall that the one underlying premise in getting kids “on staff,” was the contempt for “wog law,” in all its permutations. This included falsifying the details of both guardianship and eventual duties of the candidate on their I-129 Visa application forms; falsely attesting to guardianship on the “Billion Year” employment contract for minors; using coercive, deceitful and abusive means to force parents into signing-over their children’s guardianship to Sea Org recruiters. Through the extortion-like practice of disconnection, a wedge is often driven between parents and children, through either geographic distance or emotional blackmail, once these Sea Org employment contracts are signed. This forced isolation serves to limit the ability of a recruit to engage in conversations or actions that may cause them to question the circumstances of their recruitment and remaining life in the Sea Org.

Katerina Reyes experienced these abuses and more. At age 11, she signed the Sea Org’s Billion Year contract. She and her mother then both obtained their visas at the US embassy in Moscow, and eventually made their way to Flag. As she stated on Tony Ortega’s “Underground Bunker”:

“I just went with my mother because what else was I going to do. We signed the contract, went to the embassy to get our visas, and they sent us our tickets to go to Flag. My grandmother coached us to say we were coming back, or they wouldn’t give us the visas. I had to lie.”

Note Katrina’s mention of having to lie. This is the de facto means by which Scientology avoids accusations of potential immigration and child labor abuse; Scientology is institutionally predisposed to manipulation of “wog law” though not only lies, but also document falsification, and general obfuscation, certainly as it applies to guardianship and the contractual obligations of minors. Furthermore, the care of children in the Sea Org is appalling as Katrina goes on to explain:

The kids from PAC ranch were sent to Flag at that time. There was Mike Rinder’s son Benjamin, Mirriam Francis’s brother Sam, about 50 kids in total. And since they had a lot of kids, we were all put in one unit, away from the adults. I only saw mom at meals, which lasted half an hour. We were assigned to do a lot of hard manual labor. We had to renovate the Sandcastle Hotel and the Advanced Org. So we were using sledgehammers, painting. We had to renovate the RTC berthing, do all the landscaping. I’m talking about all-nighters.

On top of all the physical labor, she was also experience kidney trouble, and was essential told to suck it up: “…stop complaining, they said. And I had to scrub dumpsters. I couldn’t get out of that dumpster by myself. Spent all night scrubbing dumpsters at one point. That’s when I realized I couldn’t complain about anything.

The emphasis on non-religious-related, hard physical labor by children, and certainly the circumstance of her kidney trouble, all represent gross violations of the I-129 guardianship attestation. Moreover, the fact she lacked a means to properly address her grievances, implies a slave-like, indeed subhuman existence, not in keeping with her “religious duties” under her R-2 visa. Such actions are potentially in contravention of immigration and child labor law, as well as a variety of Florida civil statutes relating to the welfare of minors.

“Guardianship” implies two things relative to this analysis. In general legal terms, a guardian is at all times tasked with the welfare of a “ward” or “charge,” to include education, medical care, and the provision of appropriate food and shelter. For immigration purposes, the same guidelines apply, except for attesting that they will also keep ICE apprised of any change in a minor’s status, change of address, or change in any material fact as sworn to on the I-129 form. Should a Scientology representative improperly attest that a minor has R-1 guardian sponsorship on the required I-129 “Non-immigrant Visa Request Form”, which needs approval prior to the issuing of any R-type visa, they are potentially guilty of perjury and visa fraud. For instance, if they are aware that the minor will immediately enter the Estates Project Force, (EPF), and they are then unable to provide the constant supervision required by the I-129, they are potentially engaging in perjury and fraud.

Additionally, even if they were to provide the appropriate supervision, the substandard room, board, and “education” that comprises the usual Sea Org existence, could provide grounds for a prosecution, as a breach of the legal requirements for guardianship. Sponsorship/guardianship assumes 1) some sort of adult supervision, throughout the term of the visa etc.; and 2) the I-129 is very specific as to the existing R-1 status of affiliated parties, such as parents or guardians, as well as the specific address where a minor may be employed. Given the somewhat random nature of Sea Org “missions,” I would argue that should no legitimate attempt be made to track the whereabouts of a minor in the Sea Org, such an omission could fall under laws regarding human trafficking, in addition to those regarding child labor. The Sea Org recruitment of minors is incessant, and begins as soon as a minor hits the teen years, as evidenced in the following interview.

Lori Hodgson’s story is familiar to Scientology watchers, as well as the public at large, given her exposure on Inside Edition, and numerous radio interviews and podcasts. The extreme pressure put on her to sign a guardian’s release/power of attorney, so that her minor son could join the Sea Org, illustrates the horrible circumstances a parent can find themselves in, when facing merciless Sea Org recruiters. As a public Scientologist, Lori was relatively free of many of the controls Katrina later faced. However, it still did not spare her the anguish of losing her son to a merciless machine, despite the fact she was recovering from extensive knee surgery, and as Lori went on to tell me:

Even with all best efforts, the recruiting did not cease or even slow down. In fact, they went to my parents’ home twice late at night with my son to get my mom to “handle” me and get me to allow my son to join the Sea Org. They also showed up with my son at my mother’s place of employment to talk to her again during a school day when my son was supposed to be in school.

Ultimately, I felt the only way to keep my son and be able to maintain contact with him was to allow him to join the Sea Org. I felt I had no other choice; it was awful! I was bullied into doing this by the threat of disconnection. I was also still in a lot of pain with my botched knee replacement and looking at another surgery soon to fix it. I was very worried that if I refused, Scientology would manipulate my son to disconnect from me.  The recruiting within the organization is crude and filled with false promises and lies. These kids do not know what they are getting into. They are signing billion-year contracts without having even lived to adulthood!

Children get robbed of their schooling, which prepares them for adult life choices. I just wanted both of my kids to have their proper schooling and go to college before they were forced into making choices that I knew would be devastating, but I lost those battles. On May 4, 2009, my son left for the Sea Org. I signed under mental duress a power of attorney and guardianship to my son’s aunt and his uncle. His uncle worked very closely under David Miscavige, the leader of Scientology. I believed his uncle would look after my son’s best interest and well-being while in the Sea Org.

It was clear from our discussion that the guardianship was just a formality, nothing more than a means to an end. She went on to describe the circumstances of how she was essentially forced, indeed brow-beaten, into signing her son’s life away into the Sea Org. After a long seven month fight, Lori was finally faced with a decision no parent wants to make:

What I didn’t understand fully at the time was that legally his uncle was my son’s guardian but many of the decisions in his life would be made by the “church,” not his uncle. I found out later that his uncle was in a senior position with Scientology and spent most of his time away from my son. I’m not sure his aunt was around much either.

I remember this day clearly. I had to drive down there and I was still in a lot of pain with my botched knee replacement. When I went in to sign the contract in front of a notary, I got really sick to my stomach. I felt totally manipulated and in a way forced to do this because I knew if I didn’t I would probably lose my son at that moment to disconnection and I couldn’t take that chance. I hated it! I felt like I was being made to give up my child and there was no other choice. My ex-husband was there. He met me there and was more than willing to sign that damn contract. This whole thing made me feel like I was in a prison camp of some kind that took your kids away.

Can It Get Any Better?

As Mike Rinder mentioned, it would appear that both Federal and State authorities are reluctant to address this rampant abuse of the R-1/R-2 visa program, as well as the follow-on abrogation of guardianship, that endangers the lives of minors in the Sea Org, as well as abuses relative to the use of foreign religious workers in general. The investigation of R-1/R-2 and child labor abuses, as well as faults in managing guardianships, would appear to be easy pickings for ICE. They would need only follow-up on a random sample of recent R-1/R-2 attestations, and track supervision and the geographic location of the minors involved. While veracity as to their duties might be problematic, they certainly can’t fake their location, nor the location of their supposed guardian.

My colleague John P. posits that the Scientology endgame could be dependent on the authorities finally addressing these issues, and goes on to say:

Strategically, thinking about how to put Scientology out of business suggests that choking off the flow of religious workers for visa abuses would be a much better place to focus our efforts than trying to get the tax exemption revoked. That would likely be fatal, but as I’ve said on multiple times, it’s unlikely to happen. Choking off the flow of religious visas would mean that the cult could not open for business every day, the quality of the Flag experience would suffer dramatically, and that would, in turn, cause Scientology to lose a certain portion of the remaining whales. So I’d argue that paying attention to this issue is the most important thing we can do.

The most important thing to understand is why the cult is hiring all these foreign workers to staff the two headquarters locations at Flag and in Hollywood. That’s because the biggest strategic imperative for David Miscavige is to hang on to his “whales,” and the way to do that is to make sure they have a great experience when they come to Flag or when they do something at Celebrity Centre in Hollywood. For that, you need a lot of bodies running around behind the scenes.

It’s distressing that once again, the ability to bring about the end of this cult lies in the hand of overworked or apathetic bureaucrats. However, these stories continue to gain exposure beyond the critic community. We intend to look at further examples of these potential illegalities, not only from an immigration standpoint, but also as indicators for additional criminality.