What is the R-1 Visa in the USA?

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The R-1 visa is designed for religious workers who seek temporary work in the US for a religious denomination having a bona fide non-profit purpose. This might mean a church, a mosque, or another religious organization. The applicant must intend to work solely as a minister or in another religious occupation. The employer religious organization must be qualified in some way before it will be allowed to sponsor a religious worker.

Key Features of the R-1 Visa

Some of the key features of the R-1 religious worker visa include:

  • Although you can work for a religious denomination in the US, there is no “portability” as there is with certain other US visas such as the H-1B – you cannot legally change jobs without getting a new visa.
  • Religious organizations can expect significant delays when sponsoring their first R-1 employee, as US immigration officials will check the legitimacy of the employer. After that, subsequent visas are issued fairly quickly
  • The maximum initial duration of an R-1 visa is 30 months. Extensions can be granted up to a maximum total period of stay of five years.

Eligibility Requirements for an R-1 Visa

To qualify for an R-1 visa, you must meet the following eligibility requirements:

  • You must have been a member of a religious denomination for at least the last two years;
  • Your religion must be affiliated with a bona fide non-profit religious organization in the United States;
  • Your employer must be either (i) a bona fide non-profit religious organization or (ii) an organization that is legally affiliated with your religion;
  • You must be working directly in a religious vocation or occupation, which must be recognized as a religious occupation within your denomination);
  • You must be committed to working an average of at least 20 hours per week (at least part-time); and
  • You must not work in any non-religious capacity for any employer in the United States.

Your employer needn’t be a church (although it can be), but it must qualify as (i) a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization, (ii) a religious denomination with a group tax exemption, or (iii) an organization that is associated with a religious denomination possessing an IRS tax exemption, even if the organization does not meet the definition of a religious organization. You must prove that the organization enjoys tax-exempt status.

Who Doesn’t Qualify for R-1 Status?

The R-1 visa was designed to accommodate paid religious workers whose work is directly connected to the religious activities of a religious organization. Volunteers cannot be issued visas. Additionally, the nature of your particular job must be religious.

How to Apply for an R-1 Visa

You cannot apply for an R-1 visa on your own – your employer must initiate the visa application process. Obtaining the visa is a multi-step process, as described below.

  1. Complete USCIS Form I-129, Petition for Nonimmigrant Worker.
  2. Gather supporting documents (establishing your employer’s religious purpose and tax-exempt status, for example, or a certificate of ordination proving that you are a member of the clergy).
  3. Pay a filing fee of $460 (this fee must be paid by your employer, not by you). Your employer will receive a payment receipt, and you will need a copy of this receipt when you interview for your R-1 visa.
  4. Send the entire application package to the USCIS and wait for them to issue you a Form I-797 Approval Notice. Keep it for your records.
  5. Complete Form DS-160 (required for all US visa applicants who apply from overseas). You can complete this form online. You will receive a confirmation page, which you should print out and keep.
  6. Pay the consular filing fee of $190. You may also have to pay a visa issuance fee, depending on which country you are a citizen of. You will receive a receipt for all fees paid.
  7. Schedule a visa interview with your nearest United States embassy or consulate. You must attend an interview if you are between 14 and 79 years old. Don’t wait until the last minute to do this, because you may experience significant delays. You will receive an interview confirmation later, which you should print out and keep.
  8. Prepare documents for your visa interview, including your passport, one standard passport-sized photo, your DS-160 confirmation page, your visa appointment letter, your Form I-797 approval notice; copies of all supporting documentation you submitted with Form I-129, your employment contract with your US employer, proof of your educational qualifications (transcripts, diplomas, etc.), and proof that your employer will provide you with financial compensation (in other words, proof that your position is not a volunteer position).
  9. Attend the visa interview. The immigration officer will ask you about your background and your purpose for seeking a US visa.
  10. Submit your passport to United States immigration officials so that your R-1 visa can be stamped onto it.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Is the issuance of R-1 visas suspended at present?

No. Although in 2020 the Trump administration suspended the issuance of certain types of visas, the R-1 visa was not affected.

How long does it take to get an R-1 visa?

It will take some time to complete Form I-129 and gather supporting documentation. After your employer submits your Form I-129 application package, you will need to wait for the USCIS to respond.

This could take up to six months if your employer has never petitioned for an R-1 visa before, during which time your employer should expect a personal visit from USCIS representatives. Otherwise, the USCIS response should be considerably faster. However long it takes, you will need to wait another two or three months before your visa is issued.

If this is not your employer’s first time to petition for an R-1 visa, premium processing is available for an extra fee of $1,225. With premium processing, you will either receive a response to your visa petition (yes or no) within two weeks or the extra fee will be refunded.

What, exactly, constitutes a “religion” for the purposes of obtaining an R-1 visa?

To obtain an R-1 visa, you need to be an employee of an employer that is affiliated with a religion. What, precisely, then, is a “religion” for the purposes of obtaining an R-1 visa? According to the USCIS, religion is a community that:

  • Is governed by the rules of an ecclesiastic government;
  • Shares a common faith;
  • Shares a common doctrine;
  • Shares a common discipline;
  • Shares a place or places of worship (individual congregations may be widely separated yet share a common religion with each other);
  • Perform similar ceremonies and rituals (baptism, for example);
  • Worship in a similar manner; and
  • Sponsor organizations that are religious in nature.

Whether a given organization qualifies as a “religion” is ultimately a judgment call, in which the foregoing factors are weighed against each other.

Can I leave and re-enter the United States on an R-1 visa?

The R-1 visa is a multiple re-entry visa, meaning that you may leave and return to the United States more than once during the period of validity of your visa. The exact number of times depends on your country of citizenship. As long as you have at least one re-entry left, there is no need for you to seek advance parole before leaving the US.

Nevertheless, you need to be careful – the period of validity of your visa is not the same as your authorized period of stay, and you can only re-enter the United States while your visa is valid. It is possible to be in legal status in the US, and yet find yourself unable to re-enter if you leave the United States and seek to re-enter after your visa expires. In this case, it is better to stay in the United States.

Does time spent outside the United States while in R-1 status count against my overall 60-month limit?

Yes, it does, and there is no way to recapture the lost time. Once your 60 months expires, you will no longer be able to extend your R visa. You will have to leave the United States for at least one full year before you can seek another R visa.

Which type of religious employee is eligible for an R-1 visa?

Two types of religious employees may qualify for an R-1 visa — members of the clergy, and “other religious workers” such as”

  • Choir directors,
  • Religious teachers,
  • Counselors,
  • Missionaries,
  • Religious translators,
  • Liturgical workers,
  • Religious instructors,
  • Cantors,
  • Catechists,
  • Workers in a religious hospital,
  • Religious broadcasters, or
  • Other religious vocations or occupations that involve missionary work or the performance of a traditional religious function.

The applicant bears the burden of proving that their position qualifies as a religious vocation or occupation. It is probably easier to illuminate this concept, however, by providing examples of what does not qualify as a religious occupation than by providing examples of who does qualify. Some examples of occupations that do not qualify as religious occupations include:

  • Volunteers in any capacity, even clergy;
  • Janitors;
  • Maintenance workers;
  • Accountants;
  • Lawyers;
  • Students who come to the US solely for religious study or training for religious work;
  • Building superintendents; and
  • Fundraisers.

A visa applicant does not need to be currently employed in a religious occupation, as long as they have been a member of the relevant religious denomination for at least two years immediately preceding the visa application.

Can I apply for a green card while in R-1 status?

Yes. Unlike many types of US visas, the R-1 visa is a dual intent visa. This means that seeking permanent residence while in R-1 status will not jeopardize your R-1 status, because you do not need to prove “nonimmigrant intent” (that your intent is to remain in the United States temporarily). Although the R-1 visa is a nonimmigrant visa, not a permanent residence visa, it is possible to transition to permanent residence from R-1 status.

The means by which you might obtain permanent residence from an R-1 visa include certain types of family relationships and employment. The most directly related visa, however, is the EB-4 special immigrant visa. The EB-4 visa covers religious workers as well as certain types of employees who are not religious workers.

What is the EB-4 special immigrant visa?

The most obvious way to turn an R-1 visa into a green card is to apply for permanent residence under the EB-4 “special immigrant: religious worker” category. Eligibility requirements are the same as for the R-1 visa, except for one further requirement – you must have two years of experience as a full-time religious worker immediately prior to applying for permanent residence on this basis. Of course, it is possible to meet this requirement while in R-1 status

Unlike the R-1 visa, however, it is possible to apply in your own name (a religious non-profit organization can still apply on your behalf, however). If you are classified as a “minister”, you are not subject to any annual quota; however, if you are classified as a “religious worker”, you are subject to an annual quota of 5,000 green cards. A job offer is required, but not labor certification.

What is the definition of a “minister”?

A minister is someone fully trained according to denomination’s standards to conduct religious worship and to perform other duties usually performed by authorized members of the clergy.

Can I take my family with me to the United States?

Yes, your spouse and children are eligible to come to the United States with you. More specifically, if you are coming to the United States to work in R-1 status, you can take your spouse and unmarried children under 21 with you under R-2 visas. They must supply marriage and birth certificates proving their status.

Your family can apply for their R-2 visas at the same time that you apply for your R-1 visa, or they can wait and apply later. They will not be permitted to stay any longer than the length of your valid period of stay. Your family will not be permitted to work in the US, but they may study part-time or full-time.

Contact Herman Legal Group, LLC Today

If you seek an R-1 visa for yourself or for one or more of your organization’s employees, an experienced immigration lawyer can greatly increase your chances of success without the hassle of having to handle every obstacle on your own. Contact the Herman Legal Group today at 1-800-808-4013, or simply fill out our online contact form to schedule a consultation with us.

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