FAQs About R-1 Religious Worker Visas

Questions and answers about R-1 visa processing times, maximum stays, and more, for purposes of working with a church or other religious organization in the United States.

By , J.D.

People who have been offered temporary jobs as religious workers in the United States may be eligible for temporary stays on an R-1 visa. This visa can be a good stepping stone to someday getting an EB-4 religious worker green card. What are some of the practical realities of such visas? Let's take a closer look here.

(For the law on R-1 visas, see 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).)

Question: What types of non-clergy workers can a church sponsor?

I hear that clergy, nuns, monks, and religious brothers and sisters qualify as religious workers to get either an R-1 visa or an EB-4 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 they be church members from that country. As we start hiring, 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: Sponsored workers must be doing established jobs furthering the religion's mission and purpose

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 of an administrative or support nature. The job therefore must be an established one within the religion and involve furthering the religion's mission and purpose. Even if the job involves non-religious activities (such as administrative work), the majority of the "religious occupation" worker's duties must have a direct religious purpose.

Examples of jobs that may qualify are liturgical workers, religious instructors or counselors, cantors (choir leaders), catechists, workers in religious hospitals or religious health care facilities whose duties involve furthering the religion's creed and beliefs, missionaries, religious translators, and religious broadcasters.

You might need to provide evidence showing the religious nature of the person's work. For example, for a choir director, you'd supply evidence that he or she works directly with the minister to choose appropriate music for the choir program. Also make sure your church has sufficient need for a choir director to fill this person's time, such that the person you sponsor will concentrate on choir leadership activities.

Examples of occupations that will NOT qualify are janitors, maintenance workers, clerical and secretarial employees, fundraisers, and so on.

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 (an EB-4 visa), 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 visa petition for the person.

Question: How long will an R-1 visa last?

I've lined up a job in the U.S. that might qualify me for an R-1 visa. How long will it allow me to stay?

Answer: With extensions, five years is the longest an R-1 entrant can stay

R visas are granted initially for up to 30 months. If you apply for and receive extensions, these can take you to a maximum of five years total. If you spend time outside the U.S. while you hold an R-1 visa, it does not count toward the maximum U.S. stay. (That's according to a USCIS policy that began in 2012.) You will, however, need to show proof of the length of your absence.

Unlike with some visas, there is no grace period allowing you to pack up and prepare to leave after your stay is over. You must leave the U.S. immediately upon the end of your R-1 employment.

Question: Can we use Premium Processing for a pending R-1 petition?

Our church filed an R-1 petition to sponsor a new pastor. We sent the petition to USCIS two months ago, but its website says the current processing times are five months. We heard about an option to pay an additional fee and have USCIS approve the petition, guaranteed, within 15 days. If we were willing to pay this, could we get our new pastor here sooner than the normal five months?

Answer: Yes, but only if the site visit has been completed

Your question relates to what's known as the Premium Processing Service. For some types of application, if you file USCIS Form I-907 and pay an additional fee, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) guarantees it will approve or deny your petition within 15 calendar days; unless it can't, because it must request additional documents or information from you first. (In such a case, USCIS begins a new 15-day clock upon receiving your response.)

The premium processing fee is $1,440 (2022 figure).

For R-1 applications, the key question is whether USCIS has completed its site visit of your facility. Part of the R-1 petition process involves USCIS sending a person, typically a contract investigator, to verify the legitimacy of your organization and the proposed employment. The site visit may involve a tour of your primary and branch locations, an examination of relevant documents, and interviews with your employees and church officials. If USCIS has already completed your site visit, you may use the Premium Processing Service.

Unfortunately, paying this extra fee will not hurry up the site visit. And, many petitioners find that USCIS takes many months to schedule and complete the site visit. Even if an investigator from USCIS already visited your facility, that doesn't necessarily mean the site visit is done. The investigator must submit a report back to the USCIS officer reviewing your R-1 petition. Only after that report is on file and accepted could you submit a Premium Processing request.

So, if the investigator happens to visit today, you should perhaps wait a week or two before submitting the Premium Processing request. If the site visit has been completed, USCIS will cash your check and start the 15-day clock. If not, you'll get your check and Form I-907 back by regular mail. Of course, you can try again a week or two later.

Unfortunately, the site visit is one of the unpredictable elements of the R-1 petition process. No clear guidance exists on when it happens or how long it will take. There's thus a bit of guesswork involved in deciding when to submit the Premium Processing request. Consult an experienced immigration attorney if you want help in monitoring this process and developing a strategy for getting an approval as soon as possible.

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