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1) General Information on Religious Worker Immigration

The process of bringing foreign-born religious workers, including priests, brothers and sisters, and lay workers to the U.S. is a complicated one.  A religious worker must be the beneficiary of an approved I-129 petition filed inside the U.S. before he or she can apply for the R-1 Religious Worker visa abroad.  By requiring a religious organization and the foreign national to go through two steps in order to obtain an R-1 visa, the nonimmigrant visa process now takes much longer than it did prior to 2008.  However, this process also allows USCIS the opportunity to verify the information submitted for the application, including information regarding the validity of the employer and the proposed employment. 

To bring in a new religious worker, a sponsor will undergo a thorough review by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service.  One of the several requirements a sponsor must prove is that the worker qualifies as a religious worker and that the foreign worker meets at least one of three legal definitions of a religious worker–a minister, a person in a religious vocation, or a person in a religious occupation.  Only after USCIS approves a request from a sponsor can the foreign worker then apply for an R-1 Religious Worker visa to enter the U.S. at an U.S. Embassy or Consulate abroad.  Once satisfied, the U.S. Embassy or Consulate will issue an R-1 visa in the worker’s passport.

The religious worker will now use his or her R-1 visa to apply for admission (entry) into the U.S. The foreign-born religious worker must again satisfy the legal requirements for a temporary visiting worker to the satisfaction of a Customs and Border Protection officer.  Though this review is often conducted quickly, the intricacies of immigration law can make the process of admission confusing and complicated. 

The process for sponsoring a foreign-born religious worker for permanent residence is also a two-step process.  Once the initial request from the sponsor has been approved by USCIS, the religious worker must then submit additional information to USCIS to apply for permanent residence.  Each case is different, making it difficult to predict how long the overall process for permanent residence may take.  On average, this process may take from 6 to 18 months to complete.  Delays in processing by USCIS are common, and there are always other factors−travel, past immigration violations, etc.−which may further delay a case and affect its outcome.

As is evident, there are many government agencies that a Diocese or Religious Community must navigate and many potential issues that it must handle in order to successfully sponsor foreign-born religious workers.  In addition, because immigration law is already a complicated area of law to begin with, any seemingly minor legal violations by a sponsor or worker could have a significant consequence.  The religious worker could jeopardize future immigration benefits (such as permanent residence or U.S. citizenship) and an organization could jeopardize its ability to sponsor future foreign-born religious workers.