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Interview: How We Exposed Scientology’s Decades of Secret Immigrant Labor

In an exclusive exposé produced by Documented and New York Magazine, foreign workers revealed that the Church of Scientology has recruited thousands under the pretense of religious work, but has instead compelled them to do work with questionable religious value including cleaning dumpsters and doing construction work for extended periods of time. Our investigation unmasks decades of nearly unpaid immigrant labor done under the license of religious worker visas. The story, published today, is based on over a year of reporting. We spoke to our editor Max Siegelbaum and NY Mag writer Kevin T. Dugan, who reported the story, about what they found.

Documented: This isn’t the first time someone has written about the Church of Scientology, or called them out. What makes this story different from previous ones?

Kevin T. Dugan: People have been writing about Scientology critically since the days of Hubbard. A lot of what those stories have really brought up so far — and there’s nothing against those stories; incredible work by a lot of great reporters — tended to focus on the origins of the church and allegations of abuse from US citizens. There was also the Hollywood element: the glitz, the glamor, like Tom Cruise, who adds a particularly strange and American element to this religion. There have been reports here and there about R1 Visas before; Tony Ortega has written about this previously, and Anonymous, the hacking collective, was able to find some data and they focused on this for a little bit.

But what’s new is that no one has really dug into the process by which the church has come to obtain these religious worker visas; why they are so prevalent; and how much they have come to rely on them in order to keep operating in the United States — its headquarters. 

The population of Scientology — and especially of Sea Org, its clergy who in a lot of ways are really the operations of the organization — are heavily staffed with people who come into the U.S. on these visas and are doing manual labor, according to the people I spoke with. 

Max Siegelbaum: Other than the freshness of this report, what we’ve been able to conclusively prove in this story is that they were using the immigration system in a way that experts have told us could be fraud.

An R-1 visa worker in 2003. Photo provided to Documented and New York Magazine by a source that requested anonymity.

How long did it take for the story to come together?

Max: We got a tip from a person we’re working with who knew a man who was affected by this scheme. Then we passed the tip along to Kevin who had written for us in the past.

Kevin: It was kind of a strange tip, but he wanted me to look into it. It was coming from a former Scientologist, who was not from the U.S. I later talked to this person and he didn’t want me to disclose anything about where he was from or anything like that. 

But this person told me that the church right now heavily relies on immigrant labor, with so much of it being done by people from Eastern Europe, Russia, Latin America. Part of the reason for that is because it’s so difficult for them to recruit here in the United States. I thought that was really interesting. 

When I started to really dig into the way people would get the visas, I started to hear more stories that people were told to say things that ended up not being true — that they would become ministers, be doing volunteer work, things like that. 

Why did the story take so long to come together? It’s an investigative story, and there were indeed a lot of sources to speak to. But were there other factors that further stretched the turnaround time? 

Max: The church is a very secretive institution. It’s very powerful, they have a lot of money, and influence in politics, hence why people who leave the church don’t speak out against it. All of these things make it a hard subject to gather information on. Kevin had to really speak to a lot of different sources.

They are a highly litigious organization and we needed to be extra sure that what we were reporting on was accurate and defensible by the law.

Kevin: Most of these people are hard to find. The reason for that has to do with not only the church’s reputation as aggressive against people who have left it, but also a lot of the same problems that you see with other immigrant communities, where people don’t want to talk about the process of it, because they are worried about their own status in the country. They’re worried that immigration officials might come after them in some way. 

The other thing was when I started to dig into this more, I knew I would need a substantial number of people — especially many who would be able to go on the record because of the complexity of this apparent scheme, and the allegations that were being made. Overall, it ended up being around 40 sources who were either brought in on visas, were part of the visa process in other countries, part of the process here in the United States, or otherwise had first-hand knowledge.

What was the process of working with each other on this story like?

Max: Kevin is really a strong reporter. He really connected with this issue and constantly questioned all of his assumptions and everything about the story. I think he knew that it was an extremely high bar to hit. He also knew there was a lot of risk around reporting on such a kind of subject. He took it seriously and was a great partner in producing this story.

Kevin: One of the things that was so great about working with Documented was the amount of trust that Max and Mazin were able to give to me in doing this work. I’ve done work for Documented before. They previously had trusted me to work on stories about the New York City funds that went to undocumented communities during the pandemic. And I had talked with them going back as far back as 2016 or 2017. So I knew what they were all about, and really liked what Documented was focused on. 

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It is very rare to be given so much room as a reporter to dig into something that’s so complicated and difficult, that’s affecting a population that typically does not get covered that much by the mainstream media. So this was tremendous. I don’t know how many hours I spent on the story, but I bet it’s thousands of hours of reporting, reading, traveling, writing.

Max also saw the potential in the story as well. So that was great. He encouraged me to keep on going, to find more and more people, and to get a deeper and deeper understanding of what this was all about and how it worked. 

You have two incredibly convoluted systems interoperating here: the Church of Scientology, which is really a sprawling international network of different organizations and corporations that all interact with each other, many of them without any transparency at all. Then you have the immigration system, which is supposedly more transparent, but extremely complicated and very difficult to get an understanding of. 

So, given the chance to be able to understand and explain this was really great. I’m tremendously proud of this work, and Max definitely made this better, and it’s very rare as a reporter that you get that time and space.

What was the most surprising part of the story for you?

Max: The most surprising part for me was just how long this has been going on and how big of a tool it is. Kevin dug into the numbers from some different records requests, and he found that in some cases the majority of certain visas were going to the Church of Scientology. 

The Church of Scientology is like a fraction of the size of the Catholic Church, for example, yet, the majority of R-1 visa applications submitted by all religions of any kind in some countries — at the time period that we looked at — were from the Church of Scientology.  

In addition to that, in Russia, the Church of Scientology was able to get nearly all of its visa applications to USCIS approved for Russian citizens. When you think about that practically: they have to apply to one agency, USCIS, then be interviewed by officials at the consulates. If you’re the interviewer, and you see most of the people who are applying for these visas are for the Church of Scientology, it should ring a bell or set off a sort of curiosity. It just raises a lot of questions about what the government knew and their priorities. So, I think there’s a lot more to discover about this subject.

Kevin: I think what was most surprising was calculating how much the church has been able to benefit from people who are brought into the U.S. on R1 visas. Our calculations — which are based on a number of assumptions about time that people worked and wages paid, and we had vetted by wage experts and economists — bring the total to as high as  a billion dollars saved, adjusted for inflation. And that’s since 1993. Where that money went, we can only guess, but it is a gigantic amount of money. And I think it points to the reason these visas have been such an important part of the way Scientology operates — which they are even continuing to say in letters to the federal government as recently as last year.

What was the most challenging part of the story?

Kevin: The most challenging part was the people’s stories — their work, their health problems, allegations of sexual and physical abuse they encountered — and what they went through in order to leave the church. When I was doing this story, for much of it, I was working freelance and people I talked to would be all over the world, so I would have to wake up at odd times or work late into the night. Hearing those stories over and over and over again was extremely psychologically challenging. Of course, it’s much harder for people who live through it. But these were dozens of stories that were similar in nature.

What did you do to cope through it?

Kevin: I don’t know. Cope through it? I don’t know. I think I’m still trying to do that, to be honest.

That’s heavy. Thanks for sharing, and we hope you feel better with time. What would you want the major takeaway for readers to be? 

Kevin: One, that they’re being brought in by an organization for religious work and they are then working construction, doing things they say they’re not telling immigration authorities about. And two, that these people’s information is held by the State Department, USCIS, CBP, and that there are inspectors who can go and see what is happening on each of these compounds. 

Everybody knows that there are rules about visas and there are certain things that you can and cannot do. If a religious visa can cover any kind of labor without limit, what’s the point of it? Since the government does have these people’s information, that does open a path for more scrutiny over the way other people could be brought into the United States. 

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Max, you did say that the story would potentially have a major national impact. Is there some sort of justice that you foresee would be the outcome of the story? 

Max: A lot of people told us they were harmed in a significant way by the church, and also were brought to the United States under false pretenses. I think they deserve justice in some capacity. I don’t know what that looks like. But I think, at the very least, they’re owed some sort of government intervention or settlement because their lives have been irreparably harmed, and this is thousands and thousands of people.

And the outcome or takeaway especially for readers of a publication like ours which are mostly immigrants, advocates, social workers, and immigration lawyers?

Max: We are a newsroom of 10 full-time people. We took on considerable risks in reporting the story. I just want them to recognize that and appreciate it. We’re not an enormous corporation but we’re dedicated to pursuing the truth and justice for people who have been wronged by other people in power. It is hard and expensive. We only got this story through our connections to the grassroots immigrant advocacy community and by working with people who work with them. It was very much a part of our mission which led us here. So, in order to help us continue to exist, readers of the story can consider donating.

Read the exclusive exposé now on Documented. 

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