Religious Workers

Religious Worker Immigrants

Religious WorkersThe permanent residence process for Religious Workers comprises two phases: (1) the Special Immigrant Visa Petition and (2) the Permanent Residence Application. The following is a summary of the major requirements.

US immigration laws provide a temporary visa for religious workers, called the R-1 visa. The requirements for the R-1 visa differ from the requirements for sponsorship for permanent residence as a Religious Worker. The R-1 visa will generally be denied to a person who is being sponsored for permanent residence. In the immigration process, the employer is called the “Petitioner” and the sponsored employee is called the “Beneficiary.”

1. Special Immigrant Visa Petition (Form I-360)

The employer / petitioner files the Special Immigrant Visa Petition (Form I-360) with the Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS). The USCIS will determine two issues: (1) whether the Beneficiary meets the requirements for classification as a Special Immigrant Religious Worker, and (2) whether the Petitioner meets the immigration requirements, including whether it has the financial resources to pay the offered compensation.

Petitioner Requirements. The petitioner must be a religious organization or affiliate. This is generally demonstrated by showing the employer either has received, or would receive, Internal Revenue Service recognition as a bona fide non-profit religious organization. The petitioner must be part of an identifiable denomination. The employer must also demonstrate it has the present financial capacity to support the beneficiary and have a bona fide need for the R-1 worker’s services.

Job Offer Requirements. The job offered must be for full time work in a religious occupation. There are three qualifying religious occupations: ordained ministers (such as a priest, pastor, rabbi, imam, Buddhist monk), persons who have made a long term religious commitment but who are not ordained (such as nuns, deacons, and Christian monks), and those performing other religious work (such as cantors, music leaders, religion teachers, counselors, and translators). Work that is primarily non-religious does not qualify (for example, church administrators, teachers of non-religious subjects, clerical workers, manual laborers, etc). The petitioner must support the beneficiary through regular wages, benefits and direct provision of housing, food, clothing, medical help, etc. The beneficiary’s support cannot be dependent upon his or her own fund raising.

Beneficiary Requirements. The beneficiary must be qualified to work in the religious occupation. Ministers must have the required seminary degree, ordination certificate, or other recognition. Other religious workers must document their religious commitment and experience through certificates and reference letters. In addition to qualification, the beneficiary must show that he or she was performing the religious work as an ordained minister, a person who has made a long term religious commitment, or a person performing other religious work. This work experience must be continuous, for at least two years up to the date the I-360 was filed. Any gap in religious work during these two years will result in denial of the I-360. The two years religious work must be in the same capacity as the work that is offered by the petitioner. The beneficiary must be part of the same religious denomination as the petitioner for at least two years.

2. Permanent Residence Application

The final step is the application for permanent residence. This step can be taken only after the Special Immigrant Petition (From I-360) has been approved. The employee’s eligible family members apply for permanent residence at this time. The spouse and any unmarried children under age 21 are considered dependents for immigration purposes.

If filed inside the US with the USCIS, the permanent residence application is called “adjustment of status” (Form I-485). The employee and family dependents file for adjustment of status at the same time. They should be eligible for a work permits and travel permits when the adjustment of status application is filed. Normally the adjustment of status application will be approved without an interview. The employee and dependents will become a permanent resident of the US when the adjustment of status application is approved.

If the application for permanent residence is filed outside the US at an American consulate (“Consular Processing”), the permanent residence application is an application for an “immigrant visa” (Form DS-230). The employee and family dependents will notbe eligible for work permits and travel permits during consular processing. After the employee obtains an immigrant visa at an American consulate and is admitted at a US port of entry, he or she will be granted permanent residence.

For an indeterminate period of time after becoming a permanent resident, the employee should work for the sponsoring employer under the terms of employment stated in the labor certification. However, sponsorship for permanent residence does not affect any preexisting agreement for at-will employment between the employer and employee.

Processing Times

Due to fluctuations in the immigration system, it is difficult to predict how long it will take to obtain permanent residence. The typical processing time for a Special Immigrant Visa Petition is available from the USCIS website.

The second step, the permanent residence application, can be filed only if the I-360 has been approved and the employee’s “priority date” for an immigrant visa is current, under the employment-based fourth preference immigration category. The priority date is set by the date the I-360 was filed. Priority dates are posted monthly in the Visa Bulletin, available at the Department of State website, The difference in time between this month’s priority date and an employee’s priority date roughly approximately the amount of time the employee will need to wait before filing the permanent residence application. In the past there has been no significant waiting list for the employment-based fourth preference immigration category.

Assuming there is no waiting list, the permanent residence application can be filed as soon as the I-360 has been approved. The permanent residence application is normally processed within one year from filing this step.

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