R Visa to the U.S. as a Religious Worker: Who Qualifies?

R visas are a type of short-term work visas available to people who’ve been offered jobs as religious workers in the United States.

By , J.D. · University of Washington School of Law

R visas are a type of short-term, nonimmigrant work visa available to people who have been offered jobs as religious workers in the United States. (This comes from the federal Immigration and Nationality Act at I.N.A. § 101(a)(15)(R), 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(15)(R) and the Code of Federal Regulations at 8 C.F.R. § 214.2(r).)

There is no annual limit on the number of people who can receive R visas.

Here, we'll describe the R visa's:

  • main features and limitations
  • eligibility criteria
  • issues concerning who is not eligible, and
  • basic steps in applying for an R visa.

Key Features of the R Visa

Some of the advantages and disadvantages of the R visa include:

  • The religious worker can work legally in the U.S. for the R sponsor (the employer that files a visa petition with the U.S. immigration authorities). An R-1 worker who wants to change jobs, however, must get a new visa.
  • After the first R visa an employer applies for (which requires a site visit, often resulting in long waits) R visas can be issued reasonably quickly.
  • R visas will be granted initially for up to 30 months, with extensions up to a maximum total of five years. Time spent outside the U.S. does not count toward the maximum U.S. stay (per a USCIS policy announced in March of 2012), provided the R-1 worker can prove the length of the absence.
  • The R visa holder may travel in and out of the U.S. or stay continuously for as long as your R visa stamp and status are valid.
  • A spouse and unmarried children under age 21 can be granted R-2 visas to accompany the primary visa holder, but they may not accept employment in the United States.

Qualification Criteria for an R-1 Visa

An R-1 visa is available to a person who has been a member of a legitimate religious denomination for at least two years and has a job offer in the U.S. to work for an affiliate of that same religious organization. The work must be for at least 20 hours per week.

R-1 visas may be issued both to members of the clergy and to lay religious workers. The initial stay can be up to 30 months, and the maximum stay is five years.

The criteria for qualifying are, for the most part, the same as those for religious workers applying for special immigrant green cards (lawful permanent residence). For example, in both cases, minister is defined as a person authorized by a recognized religious denomination to conduct religious activities. The term covers not only ministers, priests, and rabbis, but also salaried Buddhist monks, commissioned officers of the Salvation Army, practitioners and nurses of the Christian Science Church, and ordained deacons. The applicant will probably be expected to prove formal recognition from the religious organization in question, such as a license, certificate of ordination, or other qualification to conduct religious worship.

The subcategory of "other religious workers" covers people who are in a "religious vocation" or "religious occupation" and are authorized and qualified to perform normal religious duties, but are not considered part of the clergy. This includes anyone performing a traditional religious function, such as 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 cover workers involved in purely nonreligious functions such as janitors, maintenance workers, clerical staff, fundraisers, or even singers. It also does not cover volunteers.

However, there is one major difference from the green card qualification criteria. It is not necessary that R-1 visa workers were actually employed by the religious organization (either abroad or in the U.S.) before getting the visa. They need only to have been members of that organization for two years.

In most cases, people who qualify for R-1 visas also qualify for green cards as special immigrants and might prefer to apply directly for a green card.

Who Doesn't Qualify for an R Visa

The R visa for religious workers is, unfortunately, intended solely for people doing work directly connected to the church or religious organization's core spiritual activities. The job itself further must be religious (not secular) in nature, such as a minister, choir director, or monk. For example, despite the fact that the organization might need an event manager for a fundraiser, or a janitor, such duties are mostly administrative in nature, which would not qualify the worker for an R visa.

The R visa also is not available for volunteers; the person must be doing paid work.

R-2 Visas: Accompanying Relatives of R-1 Visa Holders

Spouses and unmarried children under age 21 of R-1 visa holders can get R-2 visas, which they can apply for at the same time or after the main applicant. They will need to provide birth or marriage certificates to prove the family relationship, and will need to show that they don't personally fall into any ground of inadmissibility. The R-2 allows them to stay in the United States, but not to accept employment.

You're Interested in a R Visa: What's Next?

For details about what to expect and do during the R visa application process, see U.S. Immigration Made Easy, by Ilona Bray (Nolo).

You might also wish to consult an experienced immigration attorney for a full personal analysis of your eligibility, and for help with the application process. Look in particular for an attorney with expertise in business immigration law (even immigration law has many subspecialties within it).

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