What types of workers can our church hire on R-1 visas?

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Question:

I understand that clergy, nuns, monks, and religious brothers and sisters qualify as religious workers to get an R-1 visa or green card (immigrant visa) to work in the United States. But what about the other category allowed under the R visa or for green card sponsorship, for a "religious occupation?"

Our church in the U.S. just opened a new site. Most of our members are from another country and speak its language. Therefore, we prefer that most of our workers be church members from that country as well. As we start hiring staff, what types of positions can we fill with R-1 visas or later sponsor for green cards? The jobs we are considering now are choir director, office administrator, and janitor. Can we sponsor people for R-1 visas and ultimately for green cards to work in these roles?

Answer:

A religious occupation, under U.S. immigration law, is one that primarily relates to a traditional religious function recognized as such by the denomination, which clearly involves teaching or carrying out the denomination's religious creed and beliefs, and which is not primarily administrative or of a support nature. The position therefore must be an established job within the religion and involve furthering the religion's mission and purpose. Even if the job involves some non-religious activities, the majority of the "religious occupation" worker's duties must have a direct religious purpose.

Examples of occupations that may qualify are liturgical workers, religious instructors or counselors, cantors (choir leaders), catechists, workers in religious hospitals or religious health care facilities whose job duties involve furthering the religion's creed and beliefs, missionaries, religious translators, and religious broadcasters. You may need to provide evidence showing the religious nature of the person’s work. For example, for a choir director, you’d be wise to supply evidence that he or she works directly with the minister to choose appropriate music for the choir program.

Examples of occupations that will not qualify are janitors, maintenance workers, clerical employees, fundraisers, persons whose sole job is to solicit donations, and similar roles. As noted above, however, if someone’s primary occupation is religious, the law allows them to take on limited administrative duties.

Therefore, in your example, the choir director role is likely to qualify as a religious occupation, but the office administrator and janitor will not. You will also want to make sure that your church has enough of a need for a choir director to fill this person's time, such that the person you sponsor will concentrate on choir leadership activities.

Finally, for the R-1 visa, the job must be at least 20 hours per week. To sponsor a religious worker for a green card, the job must be at least 35 hours per week. If you want to sponsor just a part-time choir director, that person also could work part-time for another church that also sponsors him or her for an R-1 visa. Each organization that wants to employ an R-1 religious worker must file its own petition to sponsor the person.

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