EB-4 Visa for Religious Workers: Who Qualifies?

Ministers, rabbis, priests, and others, including vocational workers, may receive green cards based on job offers from religious organizations within the United States.

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The fourth preference category of employment-based green cards is an unusual one. Also called “special immigrants,” the EB-4 category includes a mix of green card types, some of them having no connection to employment or work. One of the subcategories is for ministers and religious workers who have received job offers from religious organizations in the United States, as discussed in this article. The other EB-4 subcategories include classifications like foreign medical graduates, former U.S. government workers, children dependent on a U.S. juvenile court, and international broadcasters.

A total of 10,000 green cards are available each year for the entire EB-4 category. Of these, no more than 5,000 may be allotted to non-clergy religious workers. Fortunately, the 10,000 limit is almost never reached, which means that applicants in this category wait far less time than those in other employment-based green card categories. As soon as the initial visa petition (Form I-360) filed by their employer has been approved by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, they can go ahead with the rest of their green card application (either through consular processing or adjustment of status.)

Another piece of good news is that no labor certification is required in this category. For more information on labor certification, see “Procedures to Sponsor a Worker for a Green Card."

Who Qualifies as a Minister or Member of the Clergy

A minister is, according to U.S. immigration law, a person authorized by a recognized religious denomination to conduct religious activities.

This includes not only some of the traditional roles that might come to mind, such as ministers, priests, and rabbis; but also salaried Buddhist monks, practitioners and nurses of the Christian Science Church, commissioned officers of the Salvation Army, and ordained deacons.

The law does place some limits on who can call themselves a minister, however. The person must have formal recognition from a qualified religion with which affiliated. Such recognition might include a license, certificate of ordination, or other qualification to conduct religious worship.

Who Qualifies as an “Other Religious Worker”

Also potentially qualified under this subcategory are “other religious workers,” that is, workers in a “religious vocation” or “religious occupation.” These workers must be authorized to perform normal religious duties, while not actually serving as part of the clergy. Examples include liturgical workers, religious instructors, religious counselors, cantors, catechists, workers in religious hospitals or religious health care facilities, missionaries, religious translators, or religious broadcasters. It does not include workers performing nonreligious functions such as maintenance workers, receptionists or clerical staff, fundraising and development staff, or even singers. It also does not include volunteers.

USCIS also requires that religious workers be working in traditionally permanent salaried positions within the organization and be assigned only religious duties.

Membership Time and Other EB-4 Requirements

To qualify for a green card as either a member of the clergy or a religious worker, the applicant must be able to show membership for at least the past two years in the religion. During those two years, the applicant must have been employed continuously (though not necessarily full time) by that same religious group. The applicant’s single purpose in coming to the U.S. must be to work full time (35-plus hours a week) as either a minister of that religion, in a situation where the denomination needs additional ministers; or, at the request of the organization, to work in some other capacity related to the religion’s activities in the United States.

The religion itself must be both recognized and have a bona fide nonprofit organization within the United States. It will need to prove this, such as with an IRS determination of tax-exempt status.

The primary EB-4 applicant’s spouse and children, if any, may apply for green cards as derivatives under this category. Children must be unmarried and under the age of 21.

This provision of the immigration laws is disfavored by some in the U.S. Congress, who periodically try to eliminate it as a way of getting permanent residence. The eligibility of non-clergy religious workers for a U.S. green card is set to expire on September 30, 2015. It has nearly reached numerous such expiration dates in the past, only to be extended by Congress at the last minute, but no guarantees can be made. This will not affect the eligibility of ministers and members of the clergy for an EB-4 green card.

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