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Nonimmigrant Visa for Religious Workers

The religious worker (R) visa program was established in 1990 to allow foreign religious workers to perform religious duties in the United States on a temporary basis. The program was intended to enable churches, mosques, synagogues and other religious organizations, which had been struggling to find qualified workers, to better serve their communities.

The petition is made on Form I-129 with the R-1 classification supplement. It must be filed by the U.S. sponsoring organization that must demonstrate membership in a specific religious denomination.

A “religious denomination” is a religious group or community of believers having some type of ecclesiastical government, a common creed or statement of faith, form of worship, a formal code of doctrine and discipline, religious services and ceremonies, established places of worship or religious congregations, or comparable indicial of bona fide religious denomination.

The employer must be able to show tax-exempt status under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. The petition must include a clear job description and state the number of hours the beneficiary will work per week, which must be no less than 20 hours.

The R-1 beneficiary is usually a minister who must be authorized and trained to conduct religious worship and who will work solely as a minister in the United States. The minister must give proof of the denomination’s requirements for someone to become a minister, and evidence of his or her ordination and theological education. A lay preacher is not a minister.

Religious vocational workers and religious occupation workers are also eligible for an R-1 visa. Religious vocation refers to a formal lifetime commitment to a religious way of life. Examples of vocations include nuns, monks and religious brothers and sisters.

Workers considered to be in a religious occupation include religious instructors, missionaries, translators and religious health care workers. Positions that are primarily administrative or support positions, such as janitors, maintenance workers, fund raisers and clerical employees are excluded.

The religious worker must be able to document at least two years of membership in the denomination. The sponsor must be of the same religious denomination of which the beneficiary has been a member.

Because of the high fraud rate in the R visa program, on-site inspections of petitioning organizations are required. The site visits may be scheduled or unannounced. The religious visa is employer specific but, if authorized by the USCIS in a separate petition, the worker may have more than one employer at a time.

The spouse and children may also be included as derivative beneficiaries but they cannot work.

The R-1 beneficiary is initially allowed a period of 30 months to stay but it may be extended for an additional 30 months. The extension application must be accompanied by financial and other supporting documents to show that the beneficiary worked as R-1 for the first 30 months.

Only periods of physical presence in the U.S. are counted towards the 5 year maximum. Any trip of at least one 24-hour day outside the U.S. can be recaptured.

The petitioning organization carries the burden of proof to establish eligibility for time recapture. It must submit evidence documenting the beneficiary’s periods of physical presence outside the U.S. Although summaries and charts of travel are helpful, the petitioner must remember to include independent documentary evidence of the time sought to be recaptured, such as copies of the passport stamps, I-94 cards, and plane tickets.

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