An internationally renowned Finnish theologian and tenured professor at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., has been forced to leave the United States because he did not qualify for his position teaching theology under new visa regulations for religious professionals.
School officials believe that this case is unprecedented, baffling, and could hurt future efforts to attract the world-class scholars.
"It's been quite a shock,' Matti Karkkainen, a professor at Fuller since 2000, said in a phone interview just before his departure.” “I've been at Fuller for four years and I have to leave the country, my house and my workplace. And I've never done anything criminal or said anything wrong."
Karkkainen was unable to appeal government decisions that denied him an extension of a visa and a work permit, prompting a July 31 deadline for him, his wife and two daughters to leave the country.
"If a theology professor from Finland can't stay here, there is something wrong with the administrative process," Karkkainen said.
Officials of the Citizenship and Immigration Services, now part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, were not available for comment.
The case also affects Fuller itself, with questions being raised about the seminary's status as a religious institution, the Century reported. Fuller is perhaps the nation's most prominent evangelical, interdenominational seminary, with some 4,300 students from 67 countries and 108 denominations attending seven campuses.
The reasons for rejection also included immigration officials determining Karkkainen's theology post was not a religious occupation.
But the appeals office raised a potentially bigger problem for the nondenominational school's future cases, Berger-Trombi said.
Fuller is well known for its diversity, with more than 100 Protestant denominations represented among students and faculty.
But immigration officials said the seminary and Karkkainen, a Pentecostal, must be from the same denomination, she said.
"Basically, they're saying that Fuller would not be able to hire anyone,” Berger-Trombi said.
A clearly frustrated Karkkainen told Religion News Service that "there is no reasonable or rational argumentation" for the denial.
"I didn't think the INS was supposed to deal with theological discernment," Karkkainen said.
It was also a reference to the decision under which Karkkainen could not establish his experience or qualifications to teach at an interdenominational seminary. He holds double doctorates, a master's degree from Fuller and has been active in World Council of Churches working groups.
Howard Louwen, a Fuller dean, said new, complicated rules for visas for religious professionals appear to be the problem. Also a factor, he said, were new rules under which a seminary is strictly defined as an institution with ties to a single denominational body.
"I suspect that Fuller looks to them (the government) more like a multidenominational university rather than a training ground for ministers," Louwen told the Century.
“Karkkainen's problems could hurt Fuller's attempts to attract world-class scholars,” Messick said. "It's going to be harder to look at those professors unless we can be confident we can not only get them, but keep them here. This is a very serious issue for us.”
“In the past few years, the immigration process has delayed about 40 Caltech researchers and scholars,” said Marjory Gooding, director of international offices at the school.
Caltech and Azusa Pacific University are two other schools with students or faculty facing unexplained immigration rejections and delays.