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AUG 20, 2007

L.A. Holocaust Museum Fights U.S. Immigration Service to Force Visa for Austrian National

LOS ANGELES, CA –  The Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust has filed an appeal challenging a visa denial by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s  U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (“USCIS”).

USCIS denied a visa last month to a young English-speaking Austrian man, Valentin Hofer, who elected to fulfill his national service requirement by volunteering at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust.  The agency justified its denial of a visa for Hofer on several grounds, including a claim that the Austrian, who has completed extensive studies on Holocaust history at an Austrian museum and speaks fluent English, lacked “competence” to qualify for the assignment in Los Angeles.

The museum’s appeal accuses Homeland Security of numerous mistakes in denying so-called “cultural exchange” visas to Austrians hoping to do volunteer work in the United States under this provision of Austrian law which allows its citizens to fulfill their military obligations through service in Holocaust institutions abroad.

“Here we have someone born and bred in a country with its own, difficult World War II history trying to spend a year working at a museum dedicated to Holocaust commemoration, reconciliation and education,” said Mark A. Rothman, the Museum’s Executive Director.  “This inexplicable denial frustrates the intention of this young man to strengthen relations between his country and ours.”

Added Rothman: “The primary reason for the Mr. Hofer’s denial was USCIS’s determination the visa would not, in fact, foster cultural exchange.  If work with our museum doesn’t constitute a cultural exchange under American law, I don’t know what would.”

The Austrian government created Austrian Holocaust Memorial Service in 1991 to recognize Austria’s part of the collective responsibility for the Holocaust.  Since then about 150 volunteers, mostly in their 20s, have worked in numerous countries in lieu of military service. Volunteers under this Austrian program have worked in the United States at the U.S. Holocaust Museum and the Simon Wiesenthal Center.  Since Sept. 11, however, immigration authorities have raised repeated roadblocks in seeking visas for these volunteers.

The Museum has received assistance from a legal team that includes Wendy Levine of Bet Tzedek Legal Services and Cristin Zeisler of the law firm Manatt Phelps & Phillips.

Said Cristin Zeisler, of the law firm Manatt Phelps & Phillips: “Our clients have seen numerous difficulties with USCIS and we’re looking into what we might be able to do to help the Museum, particularly once the administrative process is exhausted.”

Bet Tzedek helped the Museum understand the legal status of the Museum’s appeal and what other options the Museum may wish to pursue in its battle on behalf of the Austrian Holocaust service worker.

Chairman of the Museum’s Board, E. Randol Schoenberg, said, “Although the USCIS web site promises a two-month process, the Museum had to ask for early direct intervention from the office of U.S. Representative Henry Waxman just to ensure USCIS acted in time for the start of Mr. Hofer’s service year.  The more we learn, the more we suspect this denial by Homeland Security is part of a pattern of processing lags, errors, and denials. When USCIS finally rendered its inexplicable denial, it was not only wrong but sloppy – it omitted page four of a five-page explanation.”

The Museum’s legal strategy includes challenging the agency’s strange determination that the Austrian volunteer’s preparation was insufficient to demonstrate his competence.

Schoenberg said, “The individual, Valentin Hofer, couldn’t be better prepared for his service year with the L.A. Museum.  Mr. Hofer completed an extensive course of study and worked for several months at an Austrian museum that had itself been a Nazi euthanasia camp during the second World War. He is a gifted honor student and fluent in English. As part of the visa application, the museum submitted more than enough information to immigration authorities on Valentin Hofer’s extraordinary background and experience, including descriptions of his work at the Austrian museum, his full resume, school records, letter of intent, and other materials.”

Added Rothman:  “We all understand the need for post-9-11 security and the added administrative burden that puts on immigration officials.  But where is the justice when they hand down arbitrary and capricious denials of good people who bring good will and understanding to our nation because they can’t take the time to understand the facts?”