Immigration for Religious


US immigration laws cover a number of issues regarding the rights and duties of foreign nationals in the United States: defining an individual's immigration status and immigration options, determining if a person is in the country illegally, and controlling whether or not they can be deported.

Since 1952, the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) has governed US immigration law. It is frequently amended, and is supported by federal regulations which are also in constant flux. The law and regulations establish criteria and processes for temporary residence, permanent residence and citizenship. It sets out who is an immigrant and who is a citizen, who can enter the US from abroad, who can remain in the US and who must leave.

The law and regulations have been amended frequently, and over the past few years, immigration law has become much more strict, with more stringent visa requirements and longer waits for administrative actions. Fees and penalties have also been raised. Recently, the government has started collecting biometric information from immigrants in order to better identify people in the system.

Religious Travelers

Religious will encounter immigration law when they seek to travel to the US from abroad. This may occur when members come to the US for brief periods for meetings or events, or for more extended stays for formation or education, or they may seek to come to the US for a prolonged period of time or even permanently for ministry. The law and regulations are complex and changing, so it is best to determine the best program to achieve the traveler's goal, and carefully comply with all requirements.

A religious who seeks to enter the US generally must first obtain a US visa, which is placed by the USCIS in the traveler’s passport (issued by the traveler’s country of citizenship). Certain travelers may be eligible to travel to the US and remain up to 90 days without a visa if they meet the requirements for visa-free travel (visa waiver program). Non-immigrant Visa allows a person to come to the US on a temporary basis for up to five years. The R-1 visa is used for religious workers or those pursuing a religious vocation. It has very specific criteria which must be met, and conditions to maintain legal status. Immigrant visas are used for certain 'ministers of religion' and 'religious workers'. This visa allows a person to remain in the US on a permanent basis.

Visa Waiver Program

Travelers from countries that are part of the visa waiver program may come to the US for up to 90 days as a visitor. The program covers many European countries as well as Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea. These travelers need a valid machine readable passport and as of January 20, 2010 must have Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) approval. There are special provisions for those from Canada, Mexico and other countries.

R-1 Visa

The Religious Worker (R) visa is for persons seeking to enter the US to work in a religious capacity on a temporary basis. The applicant may be a cleric or other person engaging in a religious vocation or occupation (this second provision is scheduled to sunset in September 2012). The traveler must be a member of a bona fide religious denomination, which has tax-exempt status, e.g. Roman Catholic. The traveler must have been a member of the denomination for two years immediately preceding applying for religious worker status.

The traveler must plan to work as a minister of that denomination, or in a religious occupation or vocation for the denomination. (Prior to October 2008, there were additional categories of religious workers.) There is no requirement that the traveler have a residence abroad that they have no intention of abandoning, but, they must intend to depart the US at the end of their lawful status. The applicant has resided and been physically present outside the US for the immediate prior year, if he or she has previously spent five years in this category. The visa is generally issued initially for up to 30 months and may be renewed, but the total time may not exceed 60 months.

Religious work includes traditional religious functions, e.g. religious education, counseling, healthcare, but not laborers or fundraisers; religious workers are nine-to-five workers. One pursuing a religious vocation would be someone in, or pursuing, a vowed commitment. Those pursuing a religious vocation may perform any work, including laborer or fundraiser. The religious vocation is seen more as a 24/7 commitment.

Religious Immigrant Visa

The Permanent (Immigrant) Visa is for those religious who seek to live and work in the US permanently. There are two categories of Permanent Visas: minister of religion, and religious worker. If you receive an immigrant visa in the Certain Religious Worker (SR) category, you must enter the United States with the visa before September 30, 2012. For the two years prior to the petition for this visa, the worker must have been a member of the denomination, and carrying out the religious vocation or occupation they will carry out in the US. There are a limited number of these visas available each year.


The employer or religious community files a petition in the US. After this is approved, the traveller submits a visa application, and has an interview with the USCIS officer. The petition, application, supporting evidence and interview are used by USCIS to determine that a particular traveler meets the criteria for a visit. In seeking a visa for a member of a religious institute, it is important to determine the visa that best suits the purposes and length of time of that member's travel to the US.

Plan for delays in application and renewal processes, it is a lengthy an complex process. Once a member has arrived in the US, care must be taken to maintain status, and notify USCIS of changes of address. In pursuing the visa, be on time and be prepared for every appointment with USCIS. Keep copies and stay current on the status of your application. Obtain information from reliable sources and get help for legislators. It is often helpful to consult with, or have the assistance of immigration attorney or someone familiar with religious immigration.


For more information on this topic view the webcast Live on August 16, 2011 or Archived.

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