The temporary visa system wasn’t only designed for workers in the for-profit sector. Foreign nationals who work in matters of the spirit also have options when it comes to temporary employment in the U.S. The religious worker visa, also known as the R-1 visa (or R visa), is granted to ministers and other workers with a bona fide religious denominations in order to come to the U.S. and work with that denomination. This page was designed to give some general information on the religious visa and help foreign members of the clergy decide if they should contact an immigration lawyer for further assistance. The following topics are covered on this page:
- R-1 visa basics
- How Long Does an R visa last?
- Applying for a religious visa
- Can My Family Join Me?
- Do I Need a Lawyer?
Nothing contained on this page is intended as a substitute for speaking directly with a qualified attorney. Because of the complexity of the federal immigration system and filing procedures, it is recommended anyone thinking about applying for a religious visa discuss their options with a lawyer. For more information about the R visa process, contact our office.
R-1 Visa Basics
Known as a temporary nonimmigrant visa, the religious worker visa is intended for persons who wish to come to the U.S. to engage in religious activities for a temporary period of time. Unlike immigrant visas, which are issued in strictly limited numbers, the r-1 visa is issued more freely to persons who qualify. As a result, applicants typically wait for shorter periods before approval. According to statistics maintained by the US Department of State, the number of religious visas issued in 2015 totaled 6,256. This figure represents an increase since 2011 by 26 percent.
In order to qualify for the religious visa, a foreign national must either be a minister or religious worker. In the case of a minister seeking an r1 visa, he or she must be trained in a religious denomination to conduct religious worship, and other duties performed by clergy. Examples of such work might include baptisms, marriages and funerals. Though a minister’s work must be primarily of a religious nature, incidental administrative work is allowed. Lay persons do not qualify for an R visa.
Religious workers, including nuns, monks and others, must be recognized by the denomination and charged with carrying out the religious creed and beliefs of the organization. The eligible religious worker must have been a member of the denomination for at least two years immediately prior to applying for an R visa.
According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, non minister religious workers provide human services that include: assisting the needy with shelter and nutrition, ministering to the sick in hospitals or other facilities, and offering religious instruction to new members of the denomination.
It’s important to note that church support personnel primarily tasked with administrative duties do not qualify for a religious worker visa. In addition, the foreign national who holds a religious worker visa cannot be engaged primarily in soliciting donations for the organization, or engage solely in religious study. However, the religious worker is not barred from these activities altogether.
The minister or religious worker’s U.S. employer is required to attest to certain facts about the church and the job being offered during the visa petition process (see section on applying for religious visa below). Among the things the employer must attest to is the religious worker’s compensation, and whether it will be salaried or non-salaried. The reason this is important is because there have been cases of religious workers running into issues because they weren’t being compensated. A 2014 article in the Philippine Daily Inquirer describes one foreign religious worker who served as a minister with a U.S. church under a student visa. During his time with the church he was not compensated, and was denied a new visa as a result.
How Long Does an R Visa Last?
Though the time allotted for a religious visa holder to stay in the U.S. varies, the initial amount is usually 30 months. The maximum amount of time allowed with extensions is typically five years.
Applying for a Religious Visa
In order to qualify for an R visa, a religious worker or minister will need a U.S. employer to “sponsor” their petition for a visa. This begins with the employer filing a Petition for a Nonimmigrant Worker (Form I-129). This form is filed through US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
In addition, the U.S. employer will also have to submit an attestation that the church is in fact a bona fide non-profit religious organization, and is tax exempt. The attestation must include the number of members of the religious organization, the number of employees at the location in question, a summary of their responsibilities, and a statement that the foreign national to be hired has been a member of the denomination for the previous two years. The employer will need to submit an IRS letter demonstrating the group’s tax-exempt status as well as organizational literature demonstrating the group’s activities.
Evidence of the minister’s qualifications will also need to be submitted. Such evidence could include a certificate of ordination as well documentation of course completion from a theological institution.
In addition, it will be the U.S. petitioner’s responsibility to notify USCIS in the event that the religious worker or minister has been terminated from employment.
In some cases, USCIS will conduct on-site inspections of the religious facility to ensure that information submitted with I-129 is accurate.
In the event of denial of I-129, an appeal may be possible, except in cases of automatic denial. If you have questions about filing an appeal, contact our office for more information.
In cases where the Form I-129 is approved, the foreign religious worker or minister is eligible to apply for an R-1 visa at a U.S. Embassy or consulate abroad. The consulate process begins with the foreign national completing an online nonimmigrant visa application (Form DS-160), as well as submitting a photo. In most cases, an interview with a consulate officer will be scheduled. Even though a foreign national’s Form I-129 may be approved, it is still up to the discretion of the consular officer whether or not to issue a religious worker visa.
Can My Family Join Me?
Generally speaking, yes. Spouses and unmarried children (less than 21 years old), are eligible to join the religious worker under R-2 status. The time allotted in the U.S. is usually the same amount allowed by the principal religious visa. R-2 holders are not authorized to work during their stay.
Do I Need A Lawyer?
Religious workers seeking an R-1 visa are not required to retain the services of a lawyer. However, because of the complexity of the federal immigration system, it is highly recommended. An experienced lawyer will help a foreign national decide on the best type of visa for each unique situation. In addition, it is the immigration attorney’s job to make sure that filing errors are avoided. In many cases, such errors can be costly, time consuming, and result in a denial of application. If you have questions about the religious visa and whether or not you qualify, contact our office to see how we can help.