An R-1 Religious Worker visa is a temporary visa which permits an individual to enter the United States, or to change from another nonimmigrant status, in order to work in a religious capacity, upon the petition of a church or other religious body that wishes to employ the worker. R-1 visas may be granted for up to 30 months, and may be renewed for up to a total of five years.
Religious workers may include pastors, ministers, imams, rabbis, priests, or other clergy authorized to conduct religious services for a specific denomination, as well as other workers engaging in a religious vocation or occupation.
- The applicant must be a member of a religious denomination having a bona fide nonprofit religious organization in the U.S.;
- The religious denomination and its affiliate, if applicable, must be qualified for tax-exempt status; and
- The beneficiary must have been a member of the denomination for at least two years immediately preceding applying for religious worker status.
The petitioning church or religious organization must file Form I-129, Petition for Nonimmigrant Worker, with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). The petitioning employer will need to file substantial documentation as to its finances, location, doctrine, activities, and personnel. It will need to provide a detailed job description, including the salary and duties for the beneficiary. The religious organization will also need to provide an organizational chart demonstrating the relationship between the church abroad and the church in the United States, and to demonstrate that the beneficiary has been affiliated with the denomination for at least two years, and/or is recognized as a cleric of the relevant denomination. Generally, copies of religious credentials of the beneficiary, as well as a resume and/or educational transcripts are needed to demonstrate the beneficiary’s qualifications.
The petitioner should expect a site visit from a contractor to verify that the religious institution exists and appears to be an active congregation. Staff should be alerted to the possibility of a visit, and should be informed of the pending petition. The petition, Form I-129, must be approved by DHS/USCIS before the prospective religious worker can apply for a visa at a U.S. Embassy or Consulate abroad. If the beneficiary is in another valid status in the U.S., the I-129 approval will contain an I-94 card indicating the change to R-1 status.
Maintaining R-1 status
The beneficiary must not work for anyone other than the petitioner, and must work a minimum of 20 hours per week. (If two petitioning organizations have approved petitions for work as a minister or religious worker, the beneficiary may work for both of them, but may not work in any capacity other than as a minister or religious worker.)
It is extremely important that the beneficiary avoid working for the petitioner while waiting for the R-1 approval, as violating the visa requirements can easily cause a denial of an extension or of a later application for permanent residence, even if not discovered immediately.
Family Members – R-2 Visa
A nonimmigrant religious worker’s spouse and unmarried children under 21 years of age may be issued a religious worker visa to accompany or follow to join the R-1 beneficiary. They are permitted to study, but will not be authorized to work in the U.S. Therefore, evidence of their financial support while in the U.S. will be crucial at the visa interview. Thorough preparation and documentation of benefits other than salary (such as free housing, for example) is extremely important. If the salary of the R-1 beneficiary does not appear adequate to support the family members, and they do not have documentation of housing, savings, or other resources, family members’ visas may be denied.
As part of our representation, attorneys from our firm will examine the religious entity’s organization and finances, fill out all necessary forms, and advise the organization or church of the legal requirements. Our firm will discuss employee’s duties and credentials to determine whether the minister or religious worker category is more appropriate, and help the religious organization identify useful documents to include. It is extremely important to thoroughly and carefully document the qualifications and past and future duties of the employee, as well as the nature, finances, and locations of the religious organization, so as to demonstrate the employee’s eligibility for the visa. We pride ourselves on our attention to detail and we make every attempt to thoroughly document the petitioner’s and beneficiary’s eligibility as part of the initial application.
Due to abuse of this visa class by some unethical individuals in the past, USCIS now scrutinizes all Religious Worker applications very thoroughly. We believe that our careful and detailed documentation, and intervention in cases of inappropriate delay, have led to our success in this area.
Possibilities after R-1 status
An R-1 status, initially issued for up to 30 months, may be extended to up to five years. Religious workers may also qualify to change to a different temporary or permanent status. Unlike most temporary visas, there is no requirement that individuals applying for “R” visas specifically demonstrate that they have a residence abroad that they have no intention of abandoning. Thus, an R-1 visa holder may apply for permanent residence as a special immigrant religious worker or through any other provision, while in valid R-1 status. An R-1 visa holder is eligible to apply to change to nearly any other visa. However, it is strongly recommended that extension or change of status be sought as soon as possible, so as to avoid falling out of status due to immigration delays. One exception to the general flexibility of the R-1 visa is that after five years as an R-1 visa holder, the individual must spend at least one year abroad before applying again for R-1 status.
The content of this website is meant only to acquaint you with general information about immigration. This information is not legal advice and is not a substitute for having a consultation with an attorney. If you have additional questions or would like to schedule a consultation, please contact us.