Nearly 5,000 people enter the United States every year as religious workers, but due to extensive backlogs in the processing of their visa petitions, many face an uncertain future. The religious worker visa process, however, is by no means an easy path to navigate but remains a critical part of religious organizations in the United States for the continued recruitment of ministers, religious workers, priests, and others who serve within a religious vocation.
The R-1 Visa Process
The primary mechanism through which religious workers initially gain legal status in the United States is through the R-1 visa. This visa allows non-immigrants to enter the United States temporarily to be employed at least part-time by a bona fide nonprofit religious organization in the United States, working solely as a minister, in a religious vocation, or in a religious occupation. Generally, an individual may be classified as an R-1 nonimmigrant if the following apply:
- Will be employed by a nonprofit religious organization in the United States (or a nonprofit organization that is affiliated with a religious organization in the United States);
- Has been a member of a religious denomination having a bona fide nonprofit religious organization in the United States for at least two years immediately before filing the petition;
- Will work in the United States in at least a part-time position (an average of at least 20 hours per week);
- Is a minister or will be working in a religious vocation or occupation;
- Will work for the employer who files the petition to classify them as an R-1 nonimmigrant; and
- Will not work in any other capacity except as a religious worker.
Under an R-1 visa, a religious worker may stay for 30 months, and that period can be extended up to five years. However, upon the termination of the R-1 employment, the religious worker must immediately leave the country. The strict timeframe surrounding R-1 visas underscores the need for religious workers to exercise extreme care when planning their immigration journey to the United States.
While variable, the processing time for an R-1 visa can range up to 8 or 9 months without premium processing. If USCIS has completed the requisite site visit, this processing time can be decreased by paying a premium processing fee. To apply for the Premium Processing Service, the applicant must file USCIS Form I-907 with a fee of $1,500.00, and USCIS guarantees approval or denial within 15 days.
Obtaining a Green Card
For many religious workers, the R-1 visa is merely a stepping stone to obtaining a green card (lawful permanent residence). Religious workers may be eligible for an employment-based, fourth preference visa, otherwise known as an EB-4 visa. R-1 status does not automatically assume an EB-4 will be granted, however. Given the five-year limit for R-1 workers, the process for the EB-4 application requires careful consideration.
To apply for the EB-4, the religious worker must file a Form I-360 petition with USCIS; if granted, this petition provides a religious worker with a green card. Unlike the R-1 temporary visa, which has no numerical limit, the EB-4 visa category can provide no more than 10,000 green cards each year, although this limit is rarely reached.
Under the EB-4 category, green cards can be issued to ministers or members of the clergy as well as other religious workers. Under U.S. immigration law, a minister is a person authorized by a recognized religious denomination to conduct religious activities. To qualify, the applicant typically must provide some certification, license, or other proof of qualification to conduct religious worship.
The law additionally provides for “other religious workers” to receive EB-4 visas. While not technically part of the clergy, these workers include liturgical workers, religious instructors, religious counselors, cantors, catechists, workers in religious hospitals or religious health care facilities, missionaries, religious translators, or religious broadcasters. The eligibility of this sub-group of workers has drawn criticism by members of Congress. At the time of this article, they remain eligible for EB-4 visas through December 3, 2021, but absent Congressional extension, their eligibility will expire. For up-to-date information concerning the eligibility of other religious workers, click here.
Unlike for the R-1 temporary visa, applicants for an EB-4 religious worker visa must establish additional facts to qualify, including the following:
- The applicant must be able to show membership in the religion for at least the past two years;
- The applicant must have been continuously employed (though not necessarily full time) by that religious group;
- The applicant’s single purpose for being in the United States must be to work full time as either a minister of that religion, in a situation where the denomination needs additional ministers; or, at the request of the organization, to work in some other capacity related to the religion’s activities in the United States;
- The religion itself must be recognized by, and have a bona fide nonprofit organization status within, the United States.
Unfortunately, premium processing is not available for EB-4 visa applicants. Accordingly, religious workers seeking to apply for the EB-4 visa must plan for lengthy wait times to avoid having their R-1 status expire prior to receiving a green card. In fact, in recent years, the wait times for EB-4 visas have grown considerably.
Visa Delays for Religious Workers
The delays surrounding EB-4 applications have drawn increasing attention and criticism over the last year. According to one recent article, Catholic priests in Vermont encountered the delays firsthand. Unaware that the processing times took a year-and-a-half longer than before, priests serving the Diocese of Burlington were forced to leave the country because their R-1 visas expired before their green cards were approved. While the priests may reapply for the EB-4, they must wait for one year before doing so.
These delays inspired Senators Susan Collins and Tim Kaine to jointly author a letter calling on USCIS to address the significant delays affecting religious workers. The letter notes the hardships associated with these delays, including the requirement that nonimmigrants with an expired R-1 must leave the country, the loss of clergy for houses of worship, and the resulting deterioration of religious services provided to American communities.
These significant delays and hardships underscore the need for careful planning and guidance when planning to immigrate to the United States as a religious worker.