The Pastor Who Has To Leave … Like Right Now.

Just got back from my morning run on the Webster Groves High School track. Today is a great day as June 19, 1999, was the day I married my beautiful wife, Amany.

Last week, we received a series of emails from a pastor of a medium-sized church in a southern U.S. state. This church had sponsored the pastor to come to the U.S. on a religious, or R-1, visa from Africa. The pastor’s wife came as well. In the three years that they have been in the U.S., they have had 2 children who are now U.S. citizens.

As it turns out, the church filed all of the R-1 paperwork on their own and had the case approved. The visa was valid for 3 years.

The congregation and the church board of directors really liked Pastor Michael. He gave excellent sermons, was involved in the community and was readily accessible to the church members.

Because they liked him so much, the board decided to sponsor the pastor for lawful permanent resident status. They wanted to apply for a green card for Pastor Michael and his wife.

Since they had succeeded in getting the R-1 visa without the help of an attorney, they decided to file for the green cards pro se (without an attorney). They filed the necessary forms before the original R-1 visa expired.

And this is where they made their fateful mistake. No one on the board understood that simply filing for a green card for the pastor continued his R-1 visa status. No one knew that, in fact, they had to also file for an R-1 renewal so the pastor and his wife could maintain their status while the green card case was pending.

But when the church received notices that the green card cases had been accepted for processing, they thought everything was fine. It was not until they received a request for evidence nine months later on the issue of continuous lawful presence that they realized that they needed to talk to an attorney for help. USCIS had spotted the lack of R-1 renewal and knew it was a problem.

We had the not-so-fun task of telling the pastor and the board that Michael and his wife had fallen out of status. They had been out of status for more than 6 months. This meant four things:

The pastor and his wife could not obtain lawful resident status.
They had to leave the United States.
When they left the U.S, they would be barred from returning for 3 years.
The church lost all of the time, money and energy they spent on the green card for Pastor Michael and his wife.
This truly is a tragedy that could have very easily been avoided. Had the church consulted with an immigration attorney, they would have learned that the R-1 visa had to be renewed.

Pastor Michael does not want to leave. The church does not want him to leave. But leave he must.

For us, it is another reminder that consulting with an immigration attorney for any complex issue is super important. Hopefully, they won’t make that mistake again.

PS – people think R-1 visas are easy to get. In fact, USCIS has reported a marked increase in R-1 visa applications and in fraud associated with those applications. As such, these cases have been getting a lot more scrutiny lately.