USCIS site visits for religious workers
An important part of the immigration process of sponsoring international religious workers to the United States involves a site visit from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. This required visit is used to verify elements of the petition filed by the sponsor, including sponsor and beneficiary information, and work location. Site visits may occur with advance notice or without any notice. A successful site visit allows the sponsor to qualify for expedited processing when filing I-129 petitions for a nonimmigrant religious worker, also known as premium processing.
Considering the administration’s recent executive orders implementing stricter immigration enforcement and compliance, we want to make sure that our clients are prepared for a potential increase in site visits. While there has not been an executive order directly targeting this area of immigration law, stricter enforcement in general may lead to an increase in both the number of site visits and the scope of the information requested on a site visit.
It is important to keep in mind the overall purpose of site visits. Broadly speaking, they are to detect and deter fraud in obtaining immigration benefits. Visits are normally conducted by the Fraud Detection and National Security unit of the local USCIS field offices. Practically speaking, this means that all supporting information used to obtain the underlying I-129 petition is fair game for scrutiny and questioning on a site visit.
Preparing for site visits
Sponsors should always be prepared for an unannounced site visit. However, they are not exclusively physical inspections. USCIS also conducts visits by telephone and email. Since USCIS typically does not provide any advance notice, it is best practice to treat each day as a potential site visit day.
As mentioned, the purpose of a site visit is to detect fraud. For a “pre-adjudication” site visit, USCIS will primarily want to confirm that the petitioning religious organization is a bona-fide religious entity. During a “post-adjudication” site visit, USCIS will also want to verify that the religious worker is in fact working at the location stated on the petition and that the religious worker’s stated duties and compensation information is accurate. If an inspector notes inconsistencies between the petition and what they see on their visit, they may deny a pending petition or revoke and terminate an approved petition. Given this risk, we strongly advise our clients to expect questions about the underlying information on the I-129 petition. Of course, it is important to remember that site visits should not be "fishing expeditions." Questions should be limited to the specific foreign national and should also be confined to the legal requirements for R-1 status, not other statuses or benefits.
There are also instances where USCIS hires private contractors for site visits. Because the contractors, presumably, are not experts at immigration law, clients should be prepared to deal with people who have a less-than-complete understanding of the requirements of R-1 status. Despite any frustration this may cause, it is important to be professional, respectful and complacent with the representative's requests.
Given the recent trend of site visits by phone and email, petitioners and beneficiaries should make sure they provide the most up-to-date phone number and email address when filing the I-129 petition. Since phone and email site visits may require responses to requests for information and/or documents within 3-5 business days, petitioners and beneficiaries also should regularly check their phone messages and emails. If the organization’s primary contact person or the beneficiary plans to be out of town, there should be a designated person to monitor calls and emails and to handle physical visits in their absence. Also, as an automatic rule, you should immediately contact your attorney whenever contacted by USCIS officers.
Since post-adjudication site visits occur after an I-129 petition is already approved, one might not immediately recognize their importance. However, it is important to remember that USCIS can revoke an approved petition. Therefore, any type of site visit can affect whether the foreign-born religious worker can work in the United States. Failure to fully appreciate the importance of a site visit can have serious consequences, not only for the foreign national, but even for the sponsoring religious organization.
Site Visit FAQ
In order to prepare for a post-adjudication site visit, the petitioning religious organization should:
- Assign a designated person at the petitioner’s headquarters as the “go-to” person for USCIS site visits.
- Inform reception staff and other personnel to direct the USCIS officer to the designated person.
- Keep copies of all I-129 petitions, as well as any updated immigration documents (i.e. new I-94s) and current religious organization documents (i.e. recent financial records). Maintain these copies so that they are easily accessible and identifiable in the event of a site visit.
During the site visit:
- Always request the name, title, and contact information for the USCIS officer and ask for his/her business card.
- Take detailed notes of all information and documents requested by the USCIS officer.
- Whenever possible, consult your attorney before providing information and documents to the USCIS officer.
Sample questions that the petitioner may be asked on a pre- or post-adjudication site visit:
- Who paid the fees to file the visa petition?
- What is the title of the position that the beneficiary is being offered?
- What are the duties of that position?
- What is the beneficiary’s proposed yearly salary?
- Will the beneficiary be a full-time or part-time employee?
- How did your church meet the beneficiary?
- How does the beneficiary qualify for this position?
- How many members attend your church?
- Will the petitioner provide housing for the beneficiary in addition to the proposed yearly salary? If so, what is the address?
- Will the beneficiary receive supplemental income from secular employment?
- Will the beneficiary perform his duties at any other location besides the one listed on the petition? If so, please provide a brief explanation.
- What is the name and position title of the person who the beneficiary will be reporting to?
- How long has the parish been in operation?
- What is the parish’s annual revenue?
- What are the sources of its revenue?
- How many full-time employees work for the church? How many are part time?
- How many volunteers?
- What role is the beneficiary needed to fill within the church?
- On a typical worship day, approximately how many people attend?
- If the beneficiary has started working, when did the beneficiary start?
Sample questions that the beneficiary may be asked on a post-adjudication site visit:
- How long have you been an employee of the diocese?
- How long have you been at this location?
- What is your salary?
- In your own words, could you please describe the work you do?
- How many employees do you directly supervise?
- What are your normal working hours?
- What is your level of education? Please list when and where you graduated for each degree.
Sample documents that may be requested as part of a site visit:
- Copies of the balance sheets/financial statements for the past three months.
- Copies of documents, schedules, pamphlets, flyers, publications, bulletins, etc. that the church has produced recently.
- Photo/photos of the church. Public photos of the sanctuary, entryway and proposed work area for the beneficiary. Photos of non-public areas (to include photos of personnel) are not needed.
- Copy of beneficiary’s visa and passport.
- Copy of beneficiary’s last two pay statements.
You should prepare your office and/or parish, or other beneficiary work location, for the possibility of a USCIS site visit. Also, please discuss the possibility of a site visit with the foreign-born religious worker as part of the new employee training. He/she should understand to always contact both the petitioner and the attorney if contacted by USCIS.
Please contact our office if you have any questions about this or how to best prepare.