Monk Phra Bunphithak Jomthong entered the U.S. four years ago on a religious visa and has since devoted himself to serving a burgeoning Buddhist community in Southern California. Barefoot and clad in a saffron robe, Mr. Jomthong recently gave what amounts to the most accurate job description he has: "to share Buddhist practices and to promote peace and harmony among people."
But the U.S. government wants to deport the 47-year-old monk, after denying him permanent U.S. residency, or a green card, on the grounds that he was employed without authorization after his temporary religious visa lapsed. Now, Mr. Jomthong, a citizen of Thailand, is fighting in federal district court and immigration court for the right to remain in the country.
At issue is the meaning of "employment." Mr. Jomthong's fate may depend on whether his attorney can convince a judge that the monk's unpaid religious services don't constitute employment. "The monk may work at his religious labors but he is not employed by the temple. He took an oath of poverty and doesn't receive wages," says Angelo Paparelli an immigration attorney with Seyfarth Shaw LLP who is representing Mr. Jomthong free of charge.
The monk's saga illustrates how an increasingly backlogged and cautious immigration system can trip up some applicants striving to obey the law.
In late March, the government denied Mr. Jomthong a green card again, maintaining in the decision that he had been "remunerated since your admission, albeit on a modest, non-salaried basis...."