Religious Workers Regulations: Five Years Later
By Miguel A. Naranjo
Director, Religious Immigration Services
In 2008, the federal government made major changes to the Religious Worker Visa Program. Prior to the changes, the Religious Worker program was already facing increased scrutiny. It became increasingly obvious that proposals to dramatically alter the regulations would just be a matter of time. The main concern by the federal government was the issue of fraud in the category. The government was determined to make the immigration process more rigorous and burdensome for any religious organization seeking to bring foreign-born religious workers to the U.S. In the Religious Immigration Services (RIS) section of CLINIC, we were acutely aware of the pending changes and, in the fall of 2008, the federal government announced the revised regulations. These laws are still the current process being followed by the federal government today.
The startling effect of the regulation changes is readily apparent in a review of the Department of State (DOS) R-1 Visas records from 2008 to 2012. In FY 2008, the DOS reported 17,078 R-1 visa applications received at U.S. embassies and consulates worldwide. That same year it granted 10,061 R-1 visas; thus showing an approval rate of approximately 60 percent. The following year in FY 2009, with the new regulations/changes to the R-1 Religious Worker Visa program, the number of R-1 visa applications filed dramatically fell to 6,208 worldwide (down 65 percent from the previous year) and only 2,771 R-1 visas were granted, an approval rate of approximately 45 percent.
Many dioceses and religious communities initially struggled in adjusting to the revised religious worker regulations. Though the number of R-1 visa applications filed is still down from FY 2008, the approval rate of the R-1 visa has been steadily rising each year since the new regulations took effect. Despite the fact that the overall process of sponsoring international religious worker remains difficult, we are finally seeing a positive trend in the figures reported by the Department of State.
Moving forward in 2014, dioceses, religious communities, and other religious organizations should consider developing or updating an immigration policy for its international religious workers. The following should be considered:
- Assigning trained support or experienced legal counsel to handle religious immigration matters minimizes issues/problems. Immigration law requires careful planning and attention to detail. We strongly encourage dioceses, religious communities, and other religious organizations to use in-house counsel, local immigration attorneys who are knowledgeable about religious immigration, or CLINIC.
- In dealing with the federal government, always expect the unexpected. Immigration cases can be erroneously denied or are delayed with no explanation.
- Keep up-to-date personnel records of international clergy and other religious workers serving in the Diocese (where are they assigned, his/her immigration status, compensation/benefit records, etc).
- The immigration service (USCIS) requires sponsors of R-1 religious workers to notify USCIS within 14 days of when the religious worker is terminated or leaves employment. This is required by law.
Additionally, with the strict regulations in place, the religious immigration process requires careful consideration from the very start of the petition. Some of the important questions to consider are:
- Who should sponsor an R-1 religious worker? A parish, diocese, religious community, etc?
- Should we sponsor a religious worker for permanent residence, and if so, when?
- What is our policy on accepting international religious workers who transfer from one organization to our organization?
- Who should sponsor religious vocations (religious brothers and sisters) serving our Diocese?
- How are we prepared to handle immigration service "site visits?"
The most current immigration issues for religious organizations include immigration site visits and comprehensive immigration reform (CIR). As part of the revised Religious Worker Visa Program in 2008, the federal government now conducts fraud investigation site visits of sponsors and beneficiaries of R-1 visas. In addition, Congress may still enact CIR, so organizations should be discussing how to prepare for potential changes to immigration law.
While the Religious Worker Program changed dramatically and is now more challenging, the Religious Immigration Services section of CLINIC remains committed to helping religious organizations and religious workers navigate through the complicated immigration process of the R-1 category. If you need help with religious worker immigration law, please contact us at 301-565-4832.