R-1 (US Non-Immigrant Religious Worker) Visa Delay for Canadians

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I'm a Canadian CRC pastor transitioning into becoming a Specialized Transitional Minister (STM) who has accepted an invitation to cross the border to serve a church in Iowa. The crossing-the-border part of that has not gone well, so I am currently in limbo, having been refused entry to the US as a Canadian because my R-1 Visa was not complete at the time I tried to cross. This left me homeless and unemployed for, at the time of writing, almost 2 months already. Anyone planning to make a similar crossing will benefit from knowing the difficulty and delays the church and I have encountered. Sharing the story here, it is my hope to prevent others from experiencing the same disappointing delays.

Since I previously had an R-1 in 2007 when I worked as an Interim Pastor in Washington State for 6 months, I thought I had a good idea what was going to be expected to get a new one. But I later learned that in late fall 2010 the process was changed to become more complicated and require more detailed application filing and information about both the person wanting to come in, but also from the church applying to have a Canadian come work with them. The biggest change though is in the time it takes to process the application.

If what you have read so far feels like it may be relevant for you or someone you know, then you will be interested in reading a full account of the most pertinent steps and details here below. I will likely also create a separate, more personalized and reflective blog posting about the experience of such a delay.

Late in the fall of 2010, living in the Nanaimo area of Vancouver Island, I began conversing with a church in Iowa about coming to serve there as an STM. In January 2011 I visited there, and by March 2 had accepted their invitation to come. I found a website guide to the process of getting the requisite R-1 (Religious worker) Visa, purchased the forms, sent the church their copy and we began the process of applying.

I'd had an R-1 in 2007 so I had some vague idea what we did then to get it, mainly getting some official letters and presenting them at the US border as I crossed, where an R-1 card was stapled into my passport. This website showed a somewhat more involved process, as the requirements had been changed late in 2010. By mid-March I had the parts of the application (I-129) that related to me done (one of the specific details you need to track down is exactly how your parents' names are printed on their passports! So it can take some time to gather it all), and by March 28 the government offices in California had received the more than a dozen page completed application (I -129) from the congregation along with it's numerous supporting documents.

Along the way of completing this process, we ran into both vague information and information that appeared to be wrong, though we only realize that in hindsight. The vagueness came from there being very little information — or varying information — as to how long the steps of the process would take and exactly what steps were required. The wrong information was in things like the documents indicating I had to make an appointment with the nearest US Embassy once all applications were in, so that the process could be finalized in an interview. When I tried to set up the appointment with the nearest US Embassy in Canada, both online and through the automated calling system, I was told that the R-1 Visa did not call for an in-person interview. However, it did not tell me what was needed. Here is a screen capture of the page I was led to from the US Embassy site in Vancouver on March 29, 2011:

Notice when I tried to book Embassy appointment March 29 2011

I found a way to phone the Embassy and speak to a person, and was told to take my documents and present them at the border. The man I spoke to reviewed with me the list of required documents. I had all those documents already. I do recall him mentioning a "government packet of information" I should be receiving related to the church's application, but not that it was an important part of what I needed. Wanting to verify doubly, I called the folks at the border (US Customs and Border Protection) and the lady I spoke to verified that what I had in hand was enough to cross.

So, believing all was good to go, I packed a U-Haul and left my home April 9th. But when I got to the border south of Lethbridge Alberta around mid April I was denied entry to the US because the church's application needs to be approved before I cross and I need to have the resulting document, called an I-797 proving that when I cross. One shock had already come when I was underway. In that time we got access to an "application tracking" website, and were astonished to see that they projected it would take 2 months for the application received March 28th to be processed!
Below is a screen capture of the top part of the tracking page. I've created an empty block to cover our receipt number (we don't need a whole continent of CRCers checking it). I do not have a capture of when it showed a 2 month wait on the bottom half.

Capture of top half of tracking site without reciept number showing

The result was that I was now homeless and incomeless, with no idea exact idea how long it would take to finalize this process, but knowing it was now likely to be another month and a half of waiting at the very least.

As I write this, I've been in this holding pattern for a month and a half already. Meanwhile, I noticed a change in the tracking site information to worse news sometime in mid-May when it began to look like this:

Capture of change in time frame to 5 mo.

Our application is at the California Service Center, and where it had shown a time expectation of 2 months, it was now showing 5!

We don't know exactly how to interpret this. It is debatable if it means our application is now expected to take 5 months to process from the March 28th receipt date or if it means applications that came in after March 31, 2011 can expect 5 months, but ours still is under the 2 it used to show. It is hard to assess how long we have yet to wait.

I have family near where I got turned back, so I became the homeless, unemployed boomerang Dad-with-dog on my son's couch for a time, and also at my brother's place.

Fortunately and providentially, right now, I have found a couple of pastorless churches to do some preaching at that should keep me busy serving the Kingdom and the CRC and being useful in some small capacity until sometime into June and possibly July if it takes that long.

After encountering several different anecdotal accounts of similar trials — it seems lots of people have heard of a pastor who this kind of thing has happened to — I feel a strong need to get the word out about my delay so that others can be better informed than I was and can avoid such problems. If even one person can avoid this problem because they read my story here on the Network, it will have been worthwhile to share it.

If anyone reading this has either a similar experience or has some better information or advice, your input via comments will be appreciated by anyone investigating such a move from Canada to the US.

Pastor Pete VanderBeek, June 6, 2011
Currently biding God's and the US government's and his time in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.

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I'm on the "other side" of the equation - the president of the council for the church Pete's planning to serve. This has been a learning experience for all of us. One thing that we did not expect or understand was that the US church is responsible for as much or more paperwork in the process as the Canadian pastor. And, the church's paperwork is what's taking the time for approval. We filed around 40 pages for our application. From the church's perspective (and with a loud disclaimer that this is not offered as advice to anyone nor is it a complete summary) -  The church, as the prospective employer of a "non-immigrant worker" (i.e. someone who's coming here to work for a defined period of time, and not planning to immigrate permanently to the US) is responsible for "petitioning" the US Citizenship & Immigration Service (USCIS) for the R-1 Visa. In USCIS lingo, the church is the 'petitioner', and the pastor who's going to work at the church is the 'beneficiary'.  Once the petition is approved, the petitioner receives a form indicating approval. The pastor (with that form in hand) can then cross the border "in R-1 status". The US law penalizes the "employer" (i.e. the church) if it compensates someone for services rendered in the US who's not a citizen and doesn't have the proper status.  The petitioner (the church) must document to USCIS's satisfaction the following (and this is not all-inclusive):  - We really ARE a church and / or a religious tax-exempt (501c-3) organization- We have the funds needed to pay the pastor's salary.- The pastor will earn enough to secure and / or will be provided with food, shelter, etc.- We have an agreement with the pastor about what the duties are for the time spent here.- The work the pastor does is indeed religious in nature.- There's an 'end date' established for the work to be done here (it's a temporary arrangement)  The R-1 visa is associated with a particular job at a particular employer - so even if a non-US citizen had one for working at Church A, Church B will have to complete a petition for the same pastor to work there.  It's entirely possible that a "site visit" will occur - someone from a USCIS field office would visit the church, and possibly interview the current employees, to ascertain whether our petition is accurate and truthful. That hasn't happened yet in our case, and it's impossible to determine whether or not one will be scheduled until we have an approved petition or we have a site visit.  And - what adds to the confusion in this particular case - The US declares Canada to be a "visa-exempt" nation. Many people are aware of this - if you visit the US from Canada for an extended vacation for example, you don't need to get a visa first, (as you would if you were going to visit the US from many other nations). So, the physical visa is not required. However, we must still have the petition approved, and the approval document in the pastor's hand, as if there were a requirement for an actual visa. 

And, we are thankful that Pete's been able to find ways to serve the church of Christ while we all wait....

Participant

A late-coming update: I did make it across the border R-1 Visa in hand very early in August 2011 after approval came through in late July. At the time of writing I'm in  my 8th month of serving the church in Iowa, and an application has been filed for an extension of my R-1 Visa for a year. We're curious to see if that takes as long as the original application, which is why the church has started on it early.

Participant

Phase II: R-1 Visa Extension Application. It is July 24th 2012 as I write this. Back in February and March it was clear my work here would take more than one year, so Greg Westra (Chair of council) sent in an application to extend the R-1. It was acknowledged recieved by the government agency on March 22, 2012. Their website showed an 'average' time of processing for renewal applications where a site visit had been done in the last five years (one was done for the original application) of two months. It has now been four months, and we do not have confirmation of processing yet. The visa expires in August.

I post this as a future reference for any Canadian Pastor considering work in a US church, so you can be warned and informed that these are lengthy processes. We have a contingency plan in place, namely that I will take (originally unplanned) vacation time if my R-1 visa expires without word on the decision on the extension.

Participant

Well, some days have passed and we have learned new things. We have learned that if you have properly applied for an extension before your current visa expires, you generally are automatically granted an extension until you hear further:

"Even though you are not actually in a lawful nonimmigrant status, you do not accrue “unlawful presence” for purposes of inadmissibility under section 212(a)(9)(B) of the Act, while your extension of status application is pending if it was filed prior to the expiration of your Form I-94."

"Although you are out of status, you may be permitted, depending on your classification, to continue your previously authorized employment for a maximum period of 240 days while your extension application is pending if USCIS receives your application before your Form I-94 expires, and you have not violated the terms of your nonimmigrant status."

We had been plannng for me to take three weeks of vacation time if we had not heard anything by the deadline, but now it seems I'm ok to keep working, and in fact, much as I was looking forward to a trip to visit family, I have been advised NOT to leave the US while my visa is in this uncertain status, because the chance of problems getting back in without an up to date I-94 R-1 visa in hand are very high.

So, we carry on...

Participant

By the way, I wrote a reflective blog about the original delay, but neglected to link to it from here. Here it is: http://network.crcna.org/content/pastors/stopped-and-stranded-border/sto...

Participant

On Friday Aug 3, 2012 we spoke to a representative from USCIS asking if there were reasons for the length of time it was taking to process our extension application that we could do anything about - missing information etc. We were told that the application was still in 'staging' and that the way things looked an agent would be getting it on their desk in the next 30-35 days sometime, and if there were no concerns a decision would be coming soon after.

In calls like this Greg Westra, the chair of council, has learned you need to learn what kind of terminology they are using. For instance he once called to ask a question stating he was a 'representative' of the church ("petitioner") which leads them to assume you are a lawyer and he felt he was treated differently (more carefully) in that call than the one we made Friday. I was present for the call, as they are very concerned to only be speaking to people named in the documents. Again, this might be useful reference material for anyone else in the R-1 process.

The person we spoke to also spoke of new regulations and expectations being what has been bogging the system down while staffing levels remain unchanged.

Participant

On August 8 our case status tracking site changed as captured below. Read carefully, it indicates “we have approved this I129 Petition” so we have approval.

I await having the real papers in my hands to fully relax. Maybe in today's mail?

(PS, it looks like the screen capture I wanted to share might not make it into the note)