There are many concerns about how immigration policy will change and evolve in the U.S. in 2017. There will be a new administration and new staff responsible for managing the laws, regulations and policies of our country. International religious workers serving the church in the U.S. will not be immune from changes that may occur. We are already feeling the effects of the sunset of the Non-minister Permanent Residence Program and soon will be affected by the increase in USCIS filing fees. There is also the immigrant (permanent residence) visa quota that will also likely affect religious workers (both minister and non-minister groups) in 2017. As you may recall from this past spring and summer, religious workers from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, and India faced visa quota delays in applying for permanent residence.
We want to emphasize that the R-1 visa program (the temporary visa that allows religious workers to stay and work in the U.S. for up to 5 years) remains in effect. We currently do not foresee any changes to this visa category. We have heard from many organizations that believe the R-1 visa program was expiring this year. This erroneous belief is likely attributed to the sunset, but the R-1 visa program continues and U.S. religious organizations will be able to sponsor international religious workers to serve the church in the U.S. in 2017. In addition, international religious workers already here can stay and work in the U.S. so long as they have not exceeded their R-1 status (maxed out) and currently maintain valid R-1 status.
While this is positive, the challenges we faced in 2016 will likely continue and could grow in 2017. At this point there is a lot uncertainty, but we do wish to inform our clients of the possible issues that could arise in 2017. Examples include following:
- Non-minister Permanent Residence Program delayed or not renewed.
- Immigrant visa (permanent residence) quota becoming unavailable for religious workers.
- Processing delays and increased scrutiny by USCIS in adjudicating religious worker petitions/applications.
- Processing delays and increased scrutiny by U.S. Embassies/Consulates processing R-1 Visa applications to enter the U.S.
- Increased scrutiny by Customs and Border Protection officers at ports of entry toward R-1 visa religious workers applicants.
- Increased scrutiny by USCIS with religious worker petition “site visits.”
- Processing delays and increased scrutiny by U.S. Embassies/Consulates processing F-1 Student Visa applications to enter the U.S. (seminarians).
This is not a comprehensive list but focuses on what we are currently facing. With that said, now is the time to begin reviewing your organization’s policy/plan on sponsoring international religious workers. In particular, religious organizations may want to review their long term plans involving sponsoring religious workers for permanent residence. Given the processing delays from USCIS and the immigrant visa quota delays that could occur, a religious organization may want to consider beginning this process earlier than it may have in the past. We are not suggesting that you disregard other factors in your decision-making process (cost; is the worker a good fit for your organization, etc.), but we believe your policy/plan merits an updated review. These issues are complicated and as always, we are available to assist you and your organization navigate through these challenging times. Contact your assigned RIS attorney if you have any questions or wish to discuss your 2017 planning needs. We remain dedicated to serve your religious organization and your international religious workers.