Immigration Resource: Religious Worker Immigration to the U.S.

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Synod 2019 instructed the executive director, in consultation with the appropriate CRC agencies, to identify and communicate appropriate legal and financial resources to assist churches and classes with immigration of pastors and their families.  

This document provides basic information that the CRCNA’s Human Resources office relies on when it assists U.S. congregations in calling a pastor from Canada. Congregations are encouraged to contact the HR office for additional questions.

Overview

The Religious Worker (R) visa is for persons seeking to enter the United States (U.S.) to work in a religious capacity on a temporary basis, under provisions of U.S. law, specifically the Immigration and Nationality Act.

Qualifying as a Religious Worker

Religious workers include persons authorized, by a recognized employing entity, to conduct religious worship and perform other duties usually performed by authorized members of the clergy of that religion, and workers engaging in a religious vocation or occupation.

  • The applicant must be a member of a religious denomination having a bona fide nonprofit religious organization in the U.S.;
  • The religious denomination and its affiliate, if applicable, are either exempt from taxation or qualifies for tax-exempt status; and
  • The applicant has been a member of the denomination for two years immediately preceding applying for religious worker status. The applicant is planning to work as a minister of that denomination, or in a religious occupation or vocation for a bona fide, non-profit religious organization (or a tax-exempt affiliate of such an organization).There is no requirement that individuals applying for "R" visas have a residence abroad that they have no intention of abandoning. However, they must intend to depart the U.S. at the end of their lawful status, absent specific indications or evidence to the contrary. The applicant has resided and been physically present outside the U.S. for the immediate prior year, if he or she has previously spent five years in this category.

Petitions

The applicant's prospective employer must file Form I-129, Petition for Nonimmigrant Worker, with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). For more detailed information regarding the filing of Form I-129, as well as requirements, please refer to the USCIS R-1 Temporary Nonimmigrant Religious Worker webpage.

Important Note: It is very important for prospective employers to file the petition as soon as possible (but not more than 6 months before the proposed employment will begin) to provide adequate time for petition and subsequent visa processing.

The petition, Form I-129, must be approved by DHS/USCIS before the prospective religious worker can apply for a visa at a U.S. Embassy or Consulate abroad. When the petition is approved, the employer or agent is sent a Notice of Action, Form I-797, which serves as the petition approval notification. Petition approval is verified through the Department of State's Petition Information Management Service (PIMS) at the visa applicant’s interview. Visa applicants must bring the approved I-129 petition receipt number to the interview, so that petition approval can be verified. It should be noted that the approval of a petition shall not guarantee visa issuance to an applicant found to be ineligible under U.S. immigration law.

Applying for a Religious Worker Visa

Religious Worker applicants must meet specific requirements to qualify for a Religious Worker (R) visa under immigration law. The consular officer will determine whether you qualify for the visa. Although religious workers may apply at any U.S. Embassy or Consulate abroad, applicants should generally apply at the U.S. Embassy or Consulate with jurisdiction over their place of permanent residence, as it may be more difficult to qualify for the visa outside the country of permanent residence. As part of the visa application process, an interview at the embassy consular section is required for visa applicants between the ages of 14 through 79, with few exceptions. Persons age 13 and younger, and age 80 and older, generally do not require an interview, unless requested by the embassy or consulate. The waiting time for an interview appointment for applicants can vary, so early visa application is strongly encouraged. Visa wait times for interview appointments and visa processing time information for each U.S. Embassy or Consulate worldwide is available on our website at Visa Wait Times, and on most embassy websites. Learn how to schedule an appointment for an interview, pay the application processing fee, review embassy specific instructions, and much more by visiting the Embassy or Consulate website where you will apply.

During the visa application process, usually at the interview, an ink-free, digital fingerprint scan will be quickly taken. Some visa applications require further administrative processing, which takes additional time after the visa applicant's interview by a Consular Officer.

To schedule the interview appointment, you will need the receipt number that is printed on the approved Form I-129 petition. NOTE: During your interview, the consular officer will use the receipt number to verify the Form I-129 petition approval. Therefore, Form I-797 is not used to verify petition approval for your visa interview.

Required Documentation

Each applicant for a religious worker visa must submit these forms and documentation as explained below.

  • Online Nonimmigrant Visa Electronic Application, Form DS-160. Visit our DS-160 webpage to learn more about the DS-160 online process.
  • A passport valid for travel to the U.S. and with a validity date at least six months beyond the applicant's intended period of stay in the U.S. (unless country-specific agreements provide exemptions). If more than one person is included in the passport, each person must complete an application.
  • One (1) 2x2 photograph. See the required photo format explained in Photograph Requirements.

What are the Required Visa Fees?

  • Nonimmigrant visa application processing fee: For current fees for Department of State government services select Fees. You will need to provide a receipt showing the visa application processing fee has been paid, when you come for your visa interview.
  • Visa issuance fee: Additionally, if the visa is issued, there will be an additional visa issuance reciprocity fee, if applicable. Please consult the Visa Reciprocity Tables to find out if you must pay a visa issuance reciprocity fee and what the fee amount is. 

Additional Documentation

Consular officers may request whatever documentation is required and the applicant must be prepared to present any or all of the following documentation to verify that the applicant and the religious organization qualify for the R status, including:

  1. Proof of tax-exempt status or eligibility for tax-exempt status and;
  2. A letter from an authorized official of the specific unit of the employing organization certifying:
  • That if the applicant's religious membership was maintained, in whole or in part, outside the U.S., the foreign and U.S. religious organizations belong to the same religious denomination;
  • That, immediately prior to the application for the R visa, the alien has been a member of the religious denomination for the required two- year period;
  • If the applicant is a minister, he or she is authorized to conduct religious worship for that denomination. The duties should be described in detail; or
  • If the applicant is a religious professional, he or she has at least a baccalaureate degree or its equivalent, and that such a degree is required for entry into the religious profession; or
  • If the applicant is to work in a nonprofessional vocation or occupation, he or she is qualified if the type of work to be done relates to a traditional religious function;
  • The arrangements for remuneration, including the amount and source of salary, other types of compensation such as food and housing, and any other benefits to which a monetary value may be affixed, and a statement whether such remuneration shall be in exchange for services rendered;
  • The name and location of the specific organizational unit of the religious denomination or affiliate for which the applicant will be providing services;
  • If the alien is to work for an organization that is affiliated with a religious denomination, a description of the nature of the relationship between the two organizations;
  • Evidence of the religious organization's assets and methods of operation; and
  • The organization's papers of incorporation under applicable state law.

Family Members

A nonimmigrant religious worker's spouse and unmarried children under 21 years of age may be issued a religious worker visa. They may study, but may not accept employment in the U.S. Therefore, evidence of their financial support while in the U.S. will be necessary at the visa interview.

Entering the U.S. - Port of Entry

A visa allows a foreign citizen coming from abroad, to travel to the U.S. port-of entry and request permission to enter the U.S. Applicants should be aware that a visa does not guarantee entry into the U.S. The DHS, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials have authority to grant or deny admission to the U.S. If you are allowed to enter the U.S., the CBP official will determine the length of your visit on the Arrival-Departure Record, Form I-94. Since the Form I-94 documents your authorized stay in the U.S., it is important to keep it inside your passport. Upon arrival (at an international airport, seaport, or land border crossing), you will be enrolled in the US-VISIT entry-exit program. The CBP web site offers additional information on Admissions/Entry requirements.

Staying Beyond Your Authorized Stay in the U.S. and Being Out of Status

  • It is important that you depart the U.S. on or before the last day you are authorized to be in the U.S. on any given trip, based on the specified end date on your Arrival-Departure Record, Form I-94. Failure to depart the U.S. will cause you to be out-of-status. Staying beyond the period of time authorized by DHS and being out-of-status in the U.S. is a violation of U.S. immigration law. You may become ineligible for a visa in the future for return travel to the U.S. Select Classes of Aliens Ineligible to Receive Visas to learn more.
  • Staying unlawfully in the U.S. date CBP officials have authorized, even by one day, results in your visa being automatically voided, in accordance with INA 222(g). Under this provision of immigration law, if you overstay your nonimmigrant authorized stay in the U.S., your visa will be automatically voided. In this situation, you are required to reapply for a new nonimmigrant visa, generally in your country of nationality.

Additional Information

  • No assurances regarding the issuance of visas can be given in advance. Therefore, final travel plans or the purchase of non-refundable tickets should not be made until a visa has been issued.
  • Unless previously canceled, a visa is valid until its expiration date. Therefore, if the traveler has a valid U.S. visa in an expired passport, do not remove the visa page from the expired passport. You may use it along with a new valid passport for travel and admission to the U.S.
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