Religious Workers: Going From an R-1 Visa to a Green Card

Learn how churches and religious organizations can initially employ workers on a temporary visa and then move forward with green card sponsorship.

By , Attorney (Capital University Law School)

R-1 visa holders who are currently working in the United States as ministers or in a religious vocation or occupation have a fairly simple route to obtaining a green card to become U.S. lawful permanent residents. The requirements to qualify for an R-1 visa and a green card are very similar. One key distinction is that the person applying for a green card as a religious worker must, as a prerequisite, have two years of qualifying employment as a religious worker.

The R-1 visa provides a convenient way for people to gain that two years of experience in the United States. A simple route to the green card for a religious worker, therefore, is to obtain the R-1 visa, work for two years, and then have the same or another employer start the green card process.

Does an Intending Immigrant Need to Get an R-1 Visa Before a Green Card?

It is not necessary to have an R-1 visa first in order to apply for a green card. If the religious worker has already gained two years of qualifying employment experience abroad, it's possible to apply directly for the green card following the processing described below. The only benefit of first getting the R-1 visa is that in some cases, it might be faster, by several months, to get the person here initially and then pursue the green card.

How to Proceed From R-1 Visa Status to Permanent Residence

Here's an overview of the steps by which an R-1 visa holder would move forward to obtaining a U.S. green card.

Step 1: Employer Files I-360 Petition

Once a person has the required two years of experience as a religious worker, the first step is for the U.S. employer to file a petition with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). The key information and materials include the following:

  • I-360 petition form. The Form I-360 can be a bit confusing, because it is used for various types of immigration cases. The employer should just complete the employer and employee sections and the sections specific to religious workers.
  • Employer attestation. The employer must attest to specific and detailed information on the I-360 petition concerning the religious organization, its membership and affiliations, any prior religious worker or R visa petition filings, and its ability to pay the offered wages. The employer must also attest to details concerning the proposed employment and the employee's qualifications.
  • Proof of nonprofit status. The employer will need documentation from the Internal Revenue Service confirming the nonprofit status of the employer, such as a determination letter indicating that the organization is tax-exempt.
  • Proof of ability to pay. The employer will also need to include evidence of its ability to pay the offered wages, such as W-2 forms showing wages paid to the employee or other employees, annual reports, financial statements, or tax returns of the organization.
  • Evidence of membership. Include documentation of the employee's membership in the religious denomination for at least the two years immediately before filing the I-360 petition. A letter from a pastor, for example, would suffice.
  • If the petition is for a minister, copies of educational and ordination documentation. If the religious denomination does not have a prescribed theological education requirement, submit copies of documents outlining the ordination process and showing that the employee satisfied all the requirements.
  • Proof of two years' experience. The employer will need to submit documentation to confirm that the employee completed two years of qualifying employment immediately before filing the I-360 petition. A letter from the employer with any relevant supporting documents, such as W-2 wage reports, are examples of acceptable evidence.
  • Filing fee. Check the Form I-360 page of the USCIS website for the latest; USCIS is revising its fee structure, effective April 1, 2024. You can pay by check, money order, or by filling out and submitting USCIS Form G-1450, Authorization for Credit Card Transactions.

Once you get a receipt notice from USCIS, you will be given instructions for checking the status of your case online.

One common source of delay is that USCIS typically insists on making a site visit for first-time applications under the religious worker category, so as to verify the legitimacy of the organization and the proposed employment. The site visit might involve a tour of the employer's primary and branch locations, an examination of relevant documents, and interviews with employees and church officials. Site visits are also usually required in connection with first-time R-1 visa applications.

Be sure to inform other employees at the work location of an impending site visit, so they can direct the USCIS inspector to the person handling the I-360 petition.

Step 2: Employee Adjusts Status in United States or Applies for an Immigrant Visa at U.S. Consulate Abroad

After USCIS approves the I-360 petition, the employee will follow one of two routes to obtain the green card: Either file an I-485 Application to Adjust Status with USCIS in the United States or apply for an "immigrant visa" (which leads immediately to a green card after U.S. entry) at the U.S. consulate abroad.

Filing I-485 Adjustment Application in the U.S.

Beneficiaries (current or future employees) of I-360 petitions who are in the U.S. and are in lawful immigration status may apply for their green cards by submitting Form I-485, Application to Adjust Status, to USCIS. Dependent family members (spouse and children under age 21) also can submit I-485 Applications as "derivative" applicants.

For more information on this application process, see Nolo's articles on Adjustment of Status Procedures.

Applying for an Immigrant Visa at a U.S. Consulate Abroad

Prospective employees who are abroad while the employer is pursuing the I-360 petition will follow a different procedure upon approval of the I-360 petition. They will start by preparing and submitting documents and paying various fees through the National Visa Center (NVC) in the United States.

Once the NVC completes its initial processing, the employee and dependent family members (spouse and children under age 21) will eventually visit the U.S. consulate in their home country to get immigrant visas (which are the legal equivalent of green cards) there. The consulate places a temporary proof of status in the passport ("I-551 Stamp"), and the actual green card is mailed to the person's U.S. address within a few weeks or months after arriving in the United States.

For more information on consular processing, see the Consular Processing Procedures page of Nolo's website. From the time of the I-360 petition approval, the religious worker applicant can expect to wait about eight to ten months to attend the interview at the U.S. consulate. Note that the COVID-19 pandemic created extraordinary backlogs for consular interviews and that the waiting time for an interview could be longer.

More Information on R-1 Visas

For more information on the R-1 visa and the employment-based religious worker green card category, see R Visa to the U.S. as a Religious Worker: Who Qualifies? and EB-4 Visa for Religious Workers: Who Qualifies?.

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