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R-1 Religious Worker Visas

Religious Worker VisasR-1 Visas are available to both religious workers and religious ministers. Like many others types of visas, this nonimmigrant visa requires a U.S. citizen—in this case, an employer—to petition on behalf of an alien religious minister or worker—the beneficiary. Also similar to other nonimmigrant visas, the alien beneficiary must have a nonimmigrant intent, which requires the alien beneficiary to show that he has no intention of abandoning his home country. If approved, the R-1 Visa holder’s admission may be extended to his spouse and children under the age of 18 under R-2 status.

The initial length of an R-1 Visa is generally 30 months, and the employer may petition for an extension of up to 30 additional months, making the maximum stay 60 months, or 5 years. However, time spent outside the country while possessing an R-1 Visa will not count against the holder and may be recaptured. Also, if an R-1 Visa holder works for an employer besides the petitioner, the holder is considered out-of-status. However, that does not mean that a beneficiary is beholden to the employer that petitioned on his behalf; in fact, the beneficiary may change employers, but only so long as the new employer petitions on the alien beneficiary’s behalf, just as the initial original employer did.

Religious Workers

Applying to a broad class of alien beneficiaries, the religious worker is someone who performs a religious occupation or vocation in their religious denomination, whether that occupation or vocation is in a professional or nonprofessional capacity. The denomination must consider the alien beneficiary qualified to engage in this occupation or vocation. Below are a few helpful definitions to determine whether someone is performing a religious occupation or vocation, and whether such activities are for a legitimate religious denomination:

Religious Occupation:

Under the Regulations (8 C.F.R. § 214.2(r)(3)), a religious occupation is an occupation that meets all of the following four criteria:

1.) Whatever the alien beneficiary’s religious denomination may be, the occupation’s duties must connect directly to one of its engrained religious functions, and the denomination itself must recognize those duties to comprise a religious occupation within it;

2.) Those duties must also connect directly to and entail educating and carrying out the denomination’s creeds and beliefs;

3.) Those duties must not include activities that are primarily administrative or support. As discussed below, administrative duties that are incidental to a minister’s duties are acceptable—it is when those duties constitute the primary purpose of the position that an issue arises. Positions that would perform such duties include, janitors, maintenance workers, clerical employees, fund raisers, people whose sole connection to the denomination is to request donations, or other similarly situated positions; AND

4.) The alien beneficiary’s primary purpose may not be to engage in religious study or training, although it is acceptable for an alien beneficiary performing a religious occupation to engage in some religious study or training, so long as it does not become the alien beneficiary’s primary purpose.

Religious Vocation

An alien beneficiary may only seek to obtain an R-1 Visa by virtue of his religious vocation if that alien beneficiary has made a formal and lifetime commitment to live a religious life in accordance with his religious denomination. This commitment may take the form of vows, investitures, ceremonies, or other activities that convey the solemnity required of such a serious commitment. Examples of religious vocations include nuns, monks, and religious brothers and sisters. 8 C.F.R. § 214.2(r)(3).

Religious Denomination

The Regulations (8 C.F.R. § 214.2(r)(3)) define a religious domination as a religious group or community of believers that adhered governed or administered under a common type of ecclesiastical government and includes one or more of the following:

1.) A recognized common body of beliefs or statement of faith that the denomination’s members share;

2.) A shared method of worship;

3.) A common and formal code of doctrine and discipline;

4.) Common services and/or ceremonies;

5.) Common established places of worship or congregations; or

6.) Comparable indicia of a bona fide religious denomination.

Common religious denominations include Catholicism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, and Calvinism. However, the government will not discriminate against an alien petitioner’s religious denomination, and therefore his employer’s petition, because he does not belong to a denomination that is a “world religion.”

Religious Ministers

Technically speaking, a religious minister is a subset of the larger body described above–religious workers. To be classified as a religious minister, the alien beneficiary must satisfy the following four criteria:

1.) The alien beneficiary must be trained and authorized in a religious denomination to both conduct religious worship and perform other activities and duties typical of clergy in his demonization.

2.) Similar to the above criteria, the alien beneficiary cannot be a lay preacher or someone that is simply unauthorized to perform the activities and duties that a clergy in his denomination usually performs;

3.) The alien beneficiary in fact performs those activities that are generally performed by clergy in his denomination and rationally related to being a minister in his faith; AND

4.) If the government approves his employer’s petition, the alien beneficiary will work as a minister and nothing else, with administrative activities incident to ministerial duties included in such work, even if the alien beneficiary will only work part-time (on average, 20 hours per week during his stay).

Additionally, the following alien beneficiaries may also be classified as ministers: deacons, practitioners of Christian Sciences, and officer of the Salvation Army. 8 C.F.R. § 214.2(r)(3).

General Requirements and Limitations

Whether the alien beneficiary seeks admission as a religious worker, minister, or to change employers once inside the United States, the alien petitioner must establish the following:

1.) He is a member of a religious denomination which has a bona fide nonprofit religious organization (501(c)(3) tax-exempt status) in the United States, and has been a member of said organization for at least the two years immediately prior to his petition for admission;

2.) As mentioned above for ministers, the alien beneficiary will retain a position in which he will work at least part-time. To satisfy part-time employment, the alien beneficiary must work an average of at least 20 hours-per-week over the course of his stay.

3.) Also previously mentioned regarding ministers, the alien beneficiary must only engage in work as a religious minister, in a religious occupation, or in a religious vocation, as described above, whether that position is in a professional or nonprofessional capacity.

4.) His admission and continuing presence in the United States is at the request of, and to work for, the petitioner. Again, an alien beneficiary may change employers, at which point his admission and continued presence will be at the request of, and to work for, another employer. Additionally, the alien beneficiary may work for two employers, but only if both employers petition on his behalf.

5.) Lastly, and also previously mentioned, the alien beneficiary must show that he plans to only work in the United States as a religious worker and for the petitioning. This requirement speaks to the general nature of nonimmigrant visas, which permit aliens temporary admission to the United States for a specific and limited purpose.