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Religious Work Visas: Tips And Criteria For R-1 Temporary Religious Visas

Author: US Religious Work Visa Lawyer Alena Shautsova

The United States is a country that prides itself on protecting certain inalienable rights regardless of a person’s demographics. One of the human rights the US protects fiercely and refers to sometimes as liberty, is the freedom of religion. Many religious people call my office inquiring about “R” Visas. Our religious visa lawyers based in Brooklyn, NYC New York are here to help.

When people are asking about the R-1 Visa, they will say something along the lines of “The Church/ Synagogue/ Temple/ Mosque wants to help me with my status or to come to the US. Can they do that?” The first thing a person has to understand is that R visas are very similar to work visas. To paraphrase JFK, it is not what your religious organization can do for you, but what you can do for your religious organization!

The first step in analyzing whether or not a person is “qualified” for a religious visa according to USCIS, is to determine if a person has been a member of the denomination or religious organization for the last (2) two years. If the religion is new and less than (2) years old, the R-1 visa may not be the right choice. The second step is to find out if the person seeking the visa will be working for the religious organization as a minister or in a religious vocational capacity. In other words, it will be challenging to argue that the religious organization needs a person for an R-1 visa to perform janitorial services because this is a job duty that does not require any specialized theological training or knowledge. On the other hand, if the janitorial duty includes a task that requires special religious training or education, it can be a potential job for an R-1 Visa. For example, if the religious organization after one of their gatherings requires the items used during the gathering to be cleaned in a certain way, blessed, prayed or other religious function,

To recap thus far:

  1. The candidate has at least (2) two years of membership with the denomination or religious organization.
  2. The candidate will be performing religious functions that cannot otherwise be performed without special religious training or knowledge.

If the answer to these two questions is YES!!!, keep reading. If not, and you are determined that the answer will be yes soon, keep reading and bookmark this page to refer back to while you start gathering the necessary documents for the criteria listed below

Documents and Eligibility Requirements of the Religious Organization to Qualify for Sponsorship.

In order for a religious organization to be eligible to sponsor an immigrant for an R-1 visa, it must be recognized as a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization. Moreover, the religious organization must demonstrate that they have the funds to compensate the candidate and that the work the candidate is involved in will be mostly religiously orientated and not a form of secular work. IRS documentation provides the best proof that an organization has the means to compensate for a religious worker’s salary. If IRS documentation is unavailable, an audited financial statement from the religious organization can be used as proof of available funds.

Non-salaried compensation is a regular occurrence to offset the salaried compensation requirements of an R-1 visa applicant. Non-salaried compensation includes room and board, housing allowances, health insurance, travel expenses, and paid time off.

** Self-supporting religious workers are available for sponsorship as well. Still, the worker must establish that they have the means to support themselves while they stay in the US and that they will be coming for missionary work only.

Documents and Eligibility Requirements of the Religious Worker to Qualify for the R-1 Visa

The religious worker must demonstrate that they are fully authorized and trained to the standards of the religious organization to perform all duties performed by members of the clergy. Lay preachers, for example, do not qualify for R-1 visas as they are not authorized to conduct some worship activities that are reserved for members of the clergy. In addition to the criteria above, the religious worker must work solely as a minister and not perform administrative duties unless they are associated with the responsibilities of a minister. The most common example of this is being a minister on a Sunday and a bookkeeper during the week. Split function employment does not constitute the criteria for an R-1 visa. It is perfectly acceptable for a minister to review the bookkeeping, even do it themselves occasionally when short-staffed. Splitting of functions cannot be an often occurrence that takes away from the religious duties and functions of the candidate.

Next, the candidate must establish that they have made a formal lifetime commitment to the religious organization or denomination, which separates them from secular members of the religious organization. Lastly, the religious worker must demonstrate that the job duties will amount to at least 20 hours a week. It means that part-time employment on R visa is acceptable. If the petition for an R-1 visa is approved, the religious worker may choose to volunteer at another religious organization nearby with their spare time. Nevertheless, they can only be compensated by the petitioning religious organization. Therefore, a minister working 20 hours a week in Brooklyn for his petitioning organization cannot take another part-time job in Queens or Manhattan for 20 hours a week and be paid for such work.

The process starts with the organization filing for I 129. The worker herself cannot file the petition for herself. The worker can though be self-supporting: does not need to receive compensation form the organization. But in this case, the worker has to demonstrate: that the position is a part of the established program for temporary uncompensated missionary work which in part is a part of the broader international work supported by the organization; that other R-1s have participated in the program; the evidence of funds to support herself/himself.

There is a time limitation for an R status: five years unless a person is residing abroad and physically present outside the U.S. for one year. Also, the five-year limitation does not apply if a person did not reside in the US continuously, and employment is seasonal, intermittent, or less than 6 months per year or the person resides abroad but regularly commutes to the United States


It is possible, therefore, for a person who entered the US in a tourist/visitor status to change the status to the R religious worker. The admission or change of status will be valid for 30 months. 8 CFR 214.2(r) (4)(i). An extension of status may be filed for another 30 months (with the cap of 5 years) but has to be accompanied with proof that a person actually worked in a religious capacity for the last 30 months. If an R status holder will be compensated by a religious organization other than the petition, the person will be considered out of status!

The good news is that R-1 holders can apply for Special Immigrant Religious Worker classification for US green cards when they have worked continuously as a religious worker for at least 2 years prior to the application. Note that R1 must be in status and be maintaining status continuously in order to be able to adjust status to permanent resident in the US.

If you need help with the R1 religious visa questions, please reserve a consultation by calling 917-885-2261.

22 April 2020
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