What visas are available for religious workers who want to come to the United States and work? Hi, I’m Jim Hacking, immigration attorney here in St. Louis, Missouri. Our office has handled a fair amount of religious or R-1 visas over the years and they’re actually very interesting and fun visas to work on. We really enjoy being able to work with churches and mosques and synagogues and helping them bring people to the United States to work in their house of worship as a religious worker.
The visa that you use for religious workers is an R-1 visa. An R-1 visa is a visa that allows someone to come to the United States and work in a religious institution, in a religious job or vocation. One thing you need to keep in mind about the R-1 visas is it can’t be used for simple tasks at a church or synagogue or mosque.
For instance, you couldn’t get an R-1 visa for a custodian or for a grounds keeper or for people who just sort of maintain the church. An R-1 visa is limited to religious jobs, say a priest, a rabbi, or an imam, a perhaps a liturgical worker or people that are actually involved in the religion of the church or the mosque or synagogue. You can’t just assume an R-1 visa is going to be available for anyone that works at a house of worship.
R-1 visas are available for three years and there’s not a cap on the number of R-1 visas that can be awarded each year, so there’s not a delay on these. If the religious worker is married they can bring their spouse or children to the United States on an R-2 visa. So, an R-1 visa lasts for three years and it can be renewed for up to two additional years.
An R-1 visa also allows a house of worship to get to know someone that they might want to sponsor for a green card. Getting a green card for a religious person is a much higher burden than getting an R-1 visa, but both are actually pretty difficult to get.
R-1 visas take a lot of work, because you have to establish two things: The first thing that you have to establish is that this particular employee has the background to fulfill the religious job. So, USCIS is going to spend a lot of time looking at their credentials, looking at the job itself and trying to figure out what capabilities the person brings and whether it jibes with the job and whether the job is sufficiently religious. The other thing about R-1 visas that make them very time consuming from an immigration attorney standpoint is you have to spend a lot of time establishing the bona fides or the credentials of the church itself, or the religious institution.
It seems that over the last five or six years, USCIS has been much more vigilant and much more stingy in handing out R-1 visas. One of the ways they do that is checking on the validity of the house of worship. We did an R-1 visa a few years ago for a church that had been around for almost a hundred and twenty years and USCIS sent out a site investigator to look at the church. We pointed to the cornerstone on the church that was from the early nineteen hundreds. It was ultimately kind of ridiculous that we were having to go through all of this, but because of fraud in the R-1 visa context, USCIS is much more vigilant and they typically send out an inspector for a site visit at the house of worship.
This makes it true that if a church or religious institution hasn’t been around too long or if it’s relatively small, if USCIS thinks that the church is not legitimate or that they’re not sufficiently connected to other types of congregations of the same type, then it’s going to be a little bit more difficult to get an R-1 visa approved.
I can almost guarantee you that you’re going to get a request for evidence on an R-1 visa. Then there’s going to be a lot respond to. While, as we always say, there are some things you can do without an immigration attorney, an R-1 visa is not something that you want to do alone. It’s one of the more time consuming things that we do here. We enjoy working on them, but you really need to get your ducks in a row in order to get an R-1 visa approved.
A couple of years ago, we were doing an R-1 visa for a Bosnian mosque in St. Louis and the immigration service required us to go back three levels in the hierarchy of the mosque. We had to establish the Bosnian mosque, the affiliation with other Bosnian mosques in St. Louis with a parent organization in Chicago, then back to Bosnia and even back to Turkey. It was a hard fought case. It took a long time to process. We ultimately got it approved.
These cases are not easy and they are not simple. If you have a question about R-1 visas or about trying to sponsor a religious worker to come serve at your house of worship give us a call: 314-961-8200 or you can email me, firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks a lot.