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Religious Worker Visa

There are several options available to foreigners who are called to do religious work in the United States. Which option is most appropriate depends on the nature of the work and its duration.

Visitor B Visa for Temporary Religious Activity

Certain religious related activities can be undertaken using a visitor (B) visa, which is relatively easy to obtain.

People who wish to travel to the United States for religious activities - such as worship, prayer, meditation, informal religious study, or attendance of religious services or conferences - can typically obtain a regular visitor (B) visa.

A visitor visa is also appropriate for ministers seeking to come to the United States temporarily, if their wages will be paid by their own religious group outside the United States.

R-1 Visa for Temporary Nonimmigrant Religious Workers

Religious workers who will only be in the United States temporarily may be eligible for an R-1 Visa. Both the worker and the organization he or she is working for must meet certain criteria. In short, the worker must prove he or she will work at least part time, and the organization must prove its legitimacy and explain how the worker will be compensated.

An R-1 religious worker’s spouse and unmarried children under the age of 21 may be able to accompany the R-1 worker.

EB-4 Visa for Special Immigrant Religious Workers

Religious workers who plan to immigrate to the United States permanently can apply for an EB-4 Visa.

EB-4 stands for employment-based fourth-preference, meaning that the applicant’s status is tied to the job at hand. Only 5,000 non-ministers can be issued a religious based EB-4 each year. There is no similar limit on ministers seeking an EB-4, however, only 7.1 percent of the approximately 140,000 employment-based visas granted each year are awarded to “fourth-preference” applicants, of which religious workers are just one type.

To qualify as a special immigrant religious worker, the foreign national must:

  • Have been a member of a religious denomination that has a bona fide non-profit religious organization in the United States for at least 2 years immediately before the filing of a petition for this status with USCIS.
  • Seek to enter the United States to work in a full time (at least 35 hours per week), compensated (salaried or unsalaried) position in one of the following occupations:
    • Solely as a minister of that religious denomination;
    • A religious vocation either in a professional or nonprofessional capacity;
    • A religious occupation either in a professional or nonprofessional capacity; or
    • A bona fide non-profit religious organization in the United States.
  • Be coming to work for either:
    • A bona fide non-profit religious organization in the United States; or
    • A bona fide organization that is affiliated with the religious denomination in the United States.
  • Have been working in one of the positions described above after the age of 14, either abroad or in lawful immigration status in the United States, continuously for at least 2 years immediately before the filing of a petition with USCIS. The prior religious work need not correspond precisely to the type of work to be performed. A break in the continuity of the work during the preceding two years will not affect eligibility so long as:
    • The foreign national was still employed as a religious worker;
    • The break did not exceed two years; and
    • The nature of the break was for further religious training or for sabbatical that did not involve unauthorized work in the United States. However, the foreign national must have been a member of the petitioner’s denomination throughout the two years of qualifying employment.

The religious organization must provide documentation of their tax-exempt status and explain how the religious worker will be compensated. Applying for a religious worker visa can be a complicated affair.  It is best to consult with a qualified immigration law attorney if you are seeking to enter the United States under such a status.  Contact our office to discuss this matter today.

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