Can My Church Apply for a U.S. Visa for Me to Work There?

Churches, temples, synagogues, mosques, and other tax-exempt religious organizations can apply for certain types of visas for foreign-born people who will be employed in a religious vocation there.

By , Attorney · University of Cincinnati College of Law

U.S. churches, temples, synagogues, mosques, and other tax-exempt religious organizations have the power to apply for certain types of visas for foreign-born people who will work there in a religious vocation. Let's say, for example, that someone comes to the U.S. on a visitor visa and becomes involved in the same type of church they went to in their home country, including helping out with various tasks. And let's further imagine that the pastor would like to give this foreign visitor a job. Can the church apply for a visa on the foreign-born person's behalf?

In such a situation, the easiest thing might be able to apply for an "R" visa. This is a nonimmigrant (temporary) visa that the U.S. government issues for up to 30 months, which can be renewed for a stay of up to five years.

The requirements for an R visa are fairly straightforward: You have to:

  • have been a member of the religious denomination for at least two years, and
  • the church or religious organization must have offered you a job that is religious in nature.

(See 8 C.F.R. § 214.1.)

It's also true that churches can apply for an employee to get a green card and become a permanent resident of the United States. However, many strict conditions have to be met, making this a less likely option, which we won't discuss in detail here.

The Religious Organization Starts the R-1 Application Process by Filing a Visa Petition

Because the R visa is considered a type of employment visa, the church or other religious organization has to start the process by filing a petition for you, the non-citizen. The U.S. government will be looking not only to make sure that you meet the conditions for the visa, but also that the church meets the conditions for being a sponsor. Only churches, bona-fide ("real") nonprofit religious organizations and bona fide nonprofit organizations that are affiliated with a denomination may petition someone to get an R visa.

The requirement that the job must be a religious occupation means that it must be part of a religious denomination's usual practices and be related to carrying out the denomination's mission.

A church cannot ordinarily sponsor someone for things like low-responsibility clerical jobs, for cleaning, or for other types of basic tasks that aren't considered related to religious practice. However, the church could probably apply for an R visa for a person to work in its food bank, be an associate pastor, or run its homeless ministry.

One word of caution: If the church or religious organization, has never applied for someone to receive a visa before, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will likely conduct a site visit. This means that U.S. immigration officials will come ask questions about the church's history and purpose, as well as about your affiliation with it. The officials are trying to verify that the church actually exists, that people attend it, and that you really will be working there.

Make sure to discuss these practical considerations with your church before it goes ahead with filing a petition. The church takes on certain responsibilities as a "petitioner." The church will need to pay the filing fee for the application, and its staff should be prepared to communicate with USCIS by mail, by telephone, or in person in the case of a site visit. If the church decides to hire an attorney, that attorney will mostly be representing the church and not you, the religious worker. Lastly, the church should make sure it has a sufficient budget to cover your full compensation for the period of the religious worker visa.

Filling Out and Filing Form I-129 for a Religious Position

To start the application process, both you and the church will have to prepare documents showing that you qualify. First, the church will fill out the I-129 Petition for a Nonimmigrant Worker, which will serve to assure USCIS that:

  • the position is for more than 20 hours of work per week
  • the church is a bona-fide tax exempt religious organization in the U.S. or a tax-exempt organization affiliated with a denomination
  • the type of work qualifies the worker for this visa, and
  • the beneficiary (you) has been a member of the religious denomination for at least two years.

The form must be signed by a representative from the church and filed with USCIS on your behalf along with supporting documents and a fee. In cases where the petitioner is a nonprofit organization, a representative from a religious denomination also has to sign the I-129.

One of the biggest hurdles for applicants is that USCIS will be looking for continuity in your membership in a denomination. Being a member of a Protestant church in your home country, for example, and a Protestant church in the U.S. won't necessarily count as being part of the same denomination. There needs to be some shared authority or beliefs that connect the two churches. For example, if you attended a Southern Baptist church in your home country and a Southern Baptist church in the U.S., then that would likely qualify, because the Southern Baptists are an established denomination with specific authority structures and denominational beliefs.

A Properly Filed I-129 Will Extend Your Permitted Stay in the U.S.

If the church decides to go ahead with petitioning you, make sure that it files the I-129 prior to the expiration of your permitted stay on your visa (as shown on the Form I-94 that Customs and Border Protection prepared for you when you entered the United States). Any change from one type of temporary visa to another is legally considered a change of immigration status, and requesting a change of status requires that you have a valid immigration status when you apply.

However, a request to change status does not have to be approved by USCIS prior to the expiration of your permitted stay; it just has to be filed by that time. Its filing will automatically extend your permitted stay while USCIS makes a decision on your case.

Getting Legal Help

Although using an attorney is not required for U.S. immigration processes, it can greatly assist with both the speed and success of your application. If you do indeed obtain an R visa for a religious worker, you might also be able to apply for a green card after several years, on the basis of the same job. This is complicated, and depends in part on whether your job is as a minister. Find more information in EB-4 Visa for Religious Workers: Who Qualifies?

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