The USCIS recognizes that ministers of a religious denomination have a strong tradition in the US immigration law framework. Congressional approval for lawful permanent residency for qualifying ministers and their families dates back to the Immigration Act of 1924. In 1990, Congress crafted a special immigration category – for both ministers and other religious workers in the new Immigration and Nationality Act.

There is a key difference between immigration approval for ministers and religious workers. The Immigration Act of 1990 (IMMACT 90) provides that minister provisions are permanent while religious workers must have adjusted their status by October 1, 1994. This sunset provision for religious workers has been extended several times.

Additionally, there is no numerical limit on the number of ministers who can immigrate or adjust their status. There is a yearly limit of 5,000 for all other religious workers.

The key laws on special immigrant religious worker green cards

The laws that an experienced immigration lawyer will review when advising religious organizations about special immigrant visas and green cards are:

INA 101(a)(27)(C) – Certain ministers and religious workers
INA 203(b)(4) – Certain special immigrants
INA 245; 8 CFR 245 – Adjustment of status of nonimmigrant to that of a person admitted for permanent residence
8 CFR 204.5(m) – Religious workers

Eligibility Requirements for special immigrant religious worker green cards

To adjust a religious worker visa (R-1) to a lawful permanent resident (LPR) special immigrant religious worker, the applicant/beneficiary must meet the following eligibility requirements:

Eligibility to Receive an Immigrant Visa

To adjust the status of a religious worker, the applicant must be approved ad a “religious worker” by the USCIS. The application for adjustment can be filed by the applicant or by the applicant’s employer. The applicant must file a Petition/Form I-360 to be approved for the Special Immigrant status.

The foreigner/alien may be eligible for special immigrant religious worker classification – based on either:

  • Employment with a bona fide nonprofit religious organization in the US
  • Employment with a bona fide organization affiliated with the religious denomination in the United States
  • Provided ALL the following requirements are fulfilled
  • The work to be done in the organization is:
    • “Solely as a minister for a religious denomination”
    • “in a religious vocation in a professional or nonprofessional capacity”
    • “or In a religious occupation either in a professional or nonprofessional capacity”
  • “The religious worker has been a member of a religious denomination that has a bona fide nonprofit religious organization in the United States for at least 2 years immediately preceding the filing of the petition for classification as a religious worker”
  • The work performed by the religious worker must have been done continuously – either in the US or abroad for at least 2 years immediately prior to the petition filing date. The USCIS will only consider work done when the applicant was 14 years old or older

Form I-360 must include documentation and evidence to verify the above requirements. The USCIS may conduct an on-site inspection of the religious organization and may randomly inspect the organization after the adjudication.

Possible bars to adjustment to LPR status

Unless there’s an exemption or waiver, religious workers and their families are not eligible for an adjustment of status if one of the statutory bars apply. To be exempt, the religious worker can’t have acquired more than 180 days of specific immigration violations since the last date he/she was lawfully admitted – and they otherwise qualify under the INA statute – INA 245(k). Generally, an inadmissible applicant (based on the statutory bar) must obtain a wavier or equivalent relief in order to obtain LPR status.

The following statues/bar can disqualify an applicant:

  •  INA 212(a)(1) – Health-Related bars
  • INA 212(a)(2) – Crime-Related bars
  • INA 212(a)(3) – Security-Related bars
  • INA 212(a)(4) – Public Charge bars
  • INA 212(a)(6) – Illegal Entrants and Immigration Violators
  • INA 212(a)(7)(A) – Documentation Requirements for Immigrants
  • INA 212(a)(8) – Ineligibility for Citizenship
  • INA 212(a)(9) – Aliens Previously Removed
  • INA 212(a)(10) – Practicing Polygamists, Guardians Required to Accompany Helpless Persons, International Child Abductors, Unlawful Voters, and Former Citizens who Renounced Citizenship to Avoid Taxation

Contact an experienced immigration lawyer to discuss the eligibility requirements for a special immigrant religious worker.

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