Religious Worker FAQ

Religious Worker FAQ

Religious worker visas are available to people coming to work for a religious organization in the United States as a minister, or in a religious vocation or occupation.

"Ministers" are individuals who are fully authorized by a recognized religious denomination to conduct religious worship and perform other duties normally performed by the clergy.

In a "religious occupation" the duties relate to a traditional religious function, that is, to inculcating and carrying out the religious creed and beliefs of the denomination. Some administrative duties are permissible, as long as the position is not primarily administrative.

A "religious vocation" means a formal lifetime commitment to a religious way of life.

Time permitted in the United States. The R-1 nonimmigrant visa is a temporary visa, with a maximum stay of five years. In contrast, obtaining permanent residence through the immigrant religious worker visa allows a person to live and work permanently in the United States.

Requirements. To obtain R-1 nonimmigrant status, the applicant must have been a member of the sponsoring organization's religious denomination for the two years immediately before the petition is filed. To obtain permanent residency, the applicant must have actually worked for two years in a religious position. Because of this difference, it is common for religious workers to initially enter the United States on an R-1 visa and then apply for permanent residence two years later.

Also, R-1 work can be part time (average of 20 hours per week), while work must be full time (at least 35 hours per week on average) to qualify for the green card.

Any bona fide non-profit religious organization can sponsor a religious worker. The organization must have a letter from the IRS showing exemption from income tax as a 501(c)(3) organization, or it must be exempt under a group ruling.

All religious worker petitions (both I-129s and I-360s) require a site visit by USCIS. An officer will visit the religious organization to verify that it is real and functioning. Often these visits are unannounced. The officer will likely request a short tour of the premises, as well as to see the documents supporting the petition (501(c)(3) letter, articles of incorporation, financials, member directory, etc.).

The only exception to this requirement is if a successful site visit has been conducted at the organization in the previous five years, even for a different religious worker or religious occupation.

Because the site visit is conducted by the local field office, the scheduling is very hard to predict. If a site visit is needed for your petition, it could add between 2-10 months to the processing time.

To qualify for the visa, the applicant must show that he or she will not become a public charge, that is, rely on assistance from the government. That means that the sponsoring organization must offer to cover all the applicant's expenses (as in a religious order, for example) or to compensate the applicant sufficiently.

Although there is no stated minimum salary for religious workers, my office generally recommends individuals receive compensation worth 125% of the federal poverty guidelines, or about $14,000 for one person.

R-1 status only allows you to work for the sponsoring organization; outside employment is not permitted. However, it is possible to have two or more organizations of the same denomination sponsor you for part-time work with each organization. Each organization needs to file an I-129 petition.

For the green card process, once you obtain permanent residence, you can work outside of the sponsoring organization.

R-1 nonimmigrant status. The worker's spouse and children under 21 may live--but not work--in the United States on R-2 status. Family members apply for an R-2 visa at a US consulate or file a separate petition to change their status if in the United States.

Permanent residence. The worker's spouse and children under 21 are included in the immigrant visa petition, so that they are eligible to apply for permanent residence once the petition is approved. In addition, family members in the United States are eligible for work authorization while the applications for permanent residence are pending.

The initial period of time given for an R visa is normally 30 months, with a 30 month extension possible, for a total of five years. This five-year period applies to both R-1 and R-2 (dependent family) status, even if you switch in the middle of your stay.

If you live outside the United States for one year, you regain the five-year maximum stay. Short trips to the United States during this time are OK, but they do not count towards the one-year absence.

The sponsoring organization will need to provide proof of 501(c)(3) status and a letter supporting the visa petition. The organization will also need to provide proof of its ability to compensate the worker, such as financial records, IRS Form 990 (if filed), recent bank statements, and payroll records. The organization may need to provide religious literature, recent utility bills, photos, and other items to show that it is a functioning religious organization. Finally, if there is any question about the denominational membership, the petitioner will need to provide evidence regarding to its and the applicant's shared religious beliefs and forms of worship.

Applicants should provide evidence of their membership in the religious denomination and proof of qualifications for the offered position (experience letters, certificate of ordination, etc.).

R-1 nonimmigrant status. Whether you are currently in the United States or abroad, the sponsoring organization will need to file a petition with USCIS. If you are abroad, you can apply for a visa at a US consulate once the petition is approved.

Permanent residence. Whether you are in the United States or abroad, the sponsoring organization begins the process by filing the immigrant visa petition with USCIS. Once the petition is approved, you file an application for permanent residence with USCIS, if in the United States, or, if abroad, apply for an immigrant visa with a US consulate. You become a permanent resident once you enter the United States with the immigrant visa.

R-1 nonimmigrant status. US consulates are normally able to issue an R-1 visa in a matter of days, while it takes much longer for USCIS to adjudicate the petitions in the United States, usually 2-3 months or longer. It is possible to have the petition decided in 2 weeks through premium processing, for an extra fee. Premium processing is currently only available to organizations where there has been a successful site visit in the previous five years.

Permanent residence. Expect the immigrant visa petition to take 6 months or more.

Once the petition is approved, consular processing normally takes 2-3 months. If you are in the United states, the application for permanent residence for people in the United States may take over a year depending on where it is filed, but during this time you can travel and work with authorization.

R-1 nonimmigrant status. All R-1 cases require an I-129 petition to be filed, the filing fee for which is $325. If applying for a visa abroad, there is an additional visa fee of $150 per person. For R-2 dependent family members in the United States, the fee for the change of status is $290, everyone included.

I charge $1200 for R-1 cases, and an additional $200 for family members (everyone included) to change to R-2 status in the United States.

Permanent residence. The USCIS fee for the I-360 immigrant petition is $405.

For the second step, overseas consular processing for the immigrant visa costs about $600 for each family member, including the medical exam. USCIS fees for permanent residence applications in the United States run about $1300 per person, including the medical exam.

I charge $1200 for immigrant religious worker petitions and $800 for the consular processing or adjustment applications in the United States. Additional family members are $400 for a spouse and $200 per child.

Note: These fees are subject to change. I may charge more if the case presents more complex issues. All fees are agreed to before work begins.

If you are out of status (i.e., you have overstayed your visa or you entered without one), in most cases you cannot change status to R-1 religious worker or adjust status to permanent resident. You may be successful by returning to your country to apply for the religious worker visa, but there are serious penalties for staying in the United States illegally. It's recommended to speak to a lawyer before choosing this course of action.

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