Religious workers may qualify for permanent residence as a special immigrant. They can apply within the United States through adjustment of status, or from abroad by obtaining an immigrant visa at the U.S. consulate. Typically but not always, the religious worker is already in the U.S. on R-1 or temporary religious worker status.
The beneficiary of the special immigrant worker (I-360) petition may be a minister or a religious worker. A minister is fully authorized and fully trained according to a religious denomination’s standards to conduct religious activities, such as a priest, minister, rabbi or imam.
The minister must be able to provide a certificate of ordination or similar documents, and documents reflecting acceptance of the beneficiary’s qualifications as well as evidence of completion of theological education in an accredited institution.
Religious workers, on the other hand, are those who are working in a religious vocation or occupation and are authorized to perform traditional religious duties. These include religious instructors, religious counsellors, and missionaries.
The beneficiary must have been a member of the denomination for at least two years immediately preceding the filing of the petition. He also must have been working as a minister or religious worker, either abroad or lawfully in the U.S., for at least two years immediately before the filing of the petition.
The job offered must be full time or at least 35 hours per week. The petitioner must show proof of how it intends to compensate the beneficiary, such as financial statements, bank statements, budget showing sums sets aside for salary. Other types of evidence that can be submitted include W2 forms of the beneficiary if already employed by petitioner, tax returns, and documents showing that a car or room and board will be provided
Submitting sufficient documentation is important. In one case where the petitioner only submitted pay records of a missionary’s salary for one out of the minimum 2 years, the USCIS found that the pay records did not show beneficiary’s continuous, full-time employment.
The petitioning organization must make several attestations in the petition. For example, it must establish that it is a non-profit organization by providing documentation of its tax exempt status from the Internal Revenue Service.
The petitioner must also state how many members there are in the denomination, how many petitions have been filed in the past 5 years, and how many employees are currently employed on religious worker status.
Several years ago, a study concluded that 33% of visas granted in the religious worker program were based on fraudulent information. Because of this, the USCIS now requires an on-site inspection of the petitioning organization before it will approve the I-360 petition. The site visit allows the USCIS to verify the existence of the petitioner’s organization. The site visits allow the USCIS to deter fraud by checking the existence of the organization, inspecting the records and interviewing personnel.
The religious worker visa program for non-ministers has been extended through September 30, 2015. Ministers are not affected by this sunset date.
Non-minister religious workers are subject to an annual cap of 5,000 but there is no cap for those entering the U.S. solely for the purpose of carrying on the vocation of a minister.