Immigration Options for Seminarians
By: Minyoung Ohm
Many seminarians will be graduating this spring and will become ordained priests and deacons. For some foreign-born seminarians on student visas, this is the time when they decide what immigration status is best suited for their future employment. Typically, a seminarian switches to R-1 religious worker status because he will be assigned to perform priestly duties at local parishes and churches. Unlike an F-1 student visa, an R-1 visa falls in the employment-based visa category. Therefore, an employer (whether it be a Diocese or a religious community) must file an I-129 petition with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) attesting that it is offering a job to the seminarian and the seminarian will be compensated for his services.
When to File a Change of Status
An I-129 petition to change status should be filed as early as possible so that when a seminarian graduates, he can seamlessly jump into parish work without unnecessary delay. Typically, I-129 petitions take approximately 4-5 months to be adjudicated. In addition, students cannot start working and getting paid until the I-129 petition is approved. USCIS makes premium processing available (adjudication within 15 days of filing) only to religious organizations that have been previously verified by USCIS. The request for premium processing must be accompanied by extra filing fee of $1,225 in addition to the regular filing fee of $325, making it financially burdensome for some organizations.
Traveling Abroad after Changing Status
Seminarians often travel abroad after they graduate to celebrate their ordination with their family members back home. It is important to note that changing status to R-1 by filing an I-129 petition only grants R-1 “status” inside the United States. If the seminarian travels abroad and only has an F-1 student visa in their passport, he will need to apply for a new R-1 visa before coming back to the U.S. Applying for a new visa will require the seminarian to attend a visa interview in person at an appropriate U.S. Consulate in his home country. Before granting an R-1 visa, the consular officer will verify that the seminarian has an approved I-129 petition filed by his employer.
Optional Practical Training
Optional Practical Training, or “OPT”, allows a seminarian to hold a job after graduation for one year and get paid while still being in F-1 student status. OPT is useful in that it allows a student to explore a job opportunity and gain practical experience in the U.S. without having to worry about changing status. The OPT program can also serve as a trial period for employers who want to hire a seminarian but are not yet ready to commit money and efforts to changing the status of a student.
If a student is interested in OPT, the seminarian should speak with the designated school official at the school where the student is enrolled. Once the school approves OPT program for a graduating student, the seminarian will need to apply for an employment authorization card with USCIS. The application for the employment authorization can take up to 3 months. It is important to remember that the seminarian cannot begin working for the religious organization until he receives the employment authorization card.
We congratulate the accomplishments of the seminarians who are graduating this year. If you need assistance in changing the immigration status for your seminarians, please reach out to the attorneys in the Religious Immigration Services section of CLINIC. We are happy to help facilitate this transition as smoothly