This case was reported in the USCIS website on April 3, 2020. The petitioner, a Roman Catholic church, sought to classify an applicant/beneficiary as a “Special Immigrant Religious Worker,” so the beneficiary could work in the US as a “consecrated vowed member. The petition was filed in California pursuant to the Nationality Act – Section 203(b)(4), 8 U.S.C. § 1153(b)(4) which permits non-profit religious organizations (or their affiliates) the right to employ foreign nationals as ministers in religious vocations or religious occupations in America.

The Director of the California Service Center denied the petition because the church/beneficiary failed to provide evidence to show the applicant met the two-year prior employment experience requirement. The church appealed and provided new evidence.

The USCIS denied the appeal.

The law for special immigrant status for religious workers

The USCIS ruled that the burden of proof in the appeal was on the petitioner, the church. The USCIS stated that full-time employment (an average of 35 hours each week) requirement and the compensation requirement (for the two-year work period) requires that the employment be in one of the following occupations:

(i) “Solely in the vocation of a minister of that religious denomination
(ii) A religious vocation either in a professional or nonprofessional capacity”
(iii) A religious occupation either in a professional or nonprofessional capacity.”

If the applicant worked in the US, then evidence in support of that two-year includes requires a showing that the beneficiary:

  • Received a salary – as documented by certified tax returns or W-2 forms
  • Received non-salaried compensation – as evidence by any IRS documentation available
  • Didn’t receive a salary and provided for his own support – by submitting “audited financial statements, financial institution records, brokerage account statements, trust documents signed by an attorney, or other verifiable evidence acceptable to USCIS.”

Additionally, the USCIS relied on the following legal principle:

“Religious vocation means a formal lifetime commitment, through vows, investitures, ceremonies, or similar indicia, to a religious way of life. The religious denomination must have a class of individuals whose lives are dedicated to religious practices and functions, as distinguished from the secular members of the religion. Examples of individuals practicing religious vocations include nuns, monks, and religious brothers and sisters.”

The reasons of the USCIS

The appeal was denied for the following reasons:

Since the petition was filed in November, the two-year lookback period is November 2016 through November 2018. The regional director for the petitioner stated that the beneficiary was.

In an April 2019 letter, the Petitioner’s regional director states that the Beneficiary was “stationed and lived” at the “Focolare center in Germany, from May 2015 to March 2019.

The Beneficiary’s duties at the Focolare center included:

  • “Daily Mass and reception of the sacrament of the Eucharist”
  • “Daily meditation and reflection on the Sacred Scripture”
  • “Daily communal prayer and spiritual communion in close cooperation with other community members.”

In addition, the Beneficiary “was the person responsible for the financial administration of [the] Focolare center.” A Focolare is a small community setting.

The petitioner states that between November 2016 and November 2018, it paid the beneficiary’s room and board, medical insurance, travel expenses, and other expenses. The beneficiary did not receive a salary because he had taken a vow of poverty. All consecrated members “share resources worldwide.”

The USCIS found that the petitioner did not present evidence that the beneficiary was compensated for full-time work during the two years between November 2016 and November 2018. No IRS documentation of the non-salaried position was submitted as required. Nor was comparable evidence supplied as required for beneficiaries who work outside the US. The beneficiary in this case was located in Germany.

The evidence of room and board, medical insurance, travel expenses, other expenses, and the statement as to the applicant’s Focolare position and duties – is not “comparable evidence.” It’s not comparable to the IRS documentation required for non-salaried religious workers in the US. The USCIS emphasized that the supporting documents could not be corroborated were and they were not sufficient to show the Beneficiary received compensation.

The USCIS further rejected the petitioner’s claim that evidence of full-time employment for two years wasn’t required because the work was a religious vocation [and not a religious occupation]. The rejection was based on the reasoning that:

  • A religious vocation requires a formal lifetime commitment
  • To qualify as a religious vocation, the petitioner must show that “[t]he religious denomination … have a class of individuals whose lives are dedicated to religious practices and functions, as distinguished from the secular members of the religion.”

The record doesn’t support a showing that the Catholic Church (rather than the petitioning entity) “recognizes focolarinos – ‘consecrated laymen and laywomen,’ … – as a class of individuals whose lives are dedicated to religious practices and functions, and that they are not secular members of Christianity.”

Contact an experienced immigration lawyer to review how to show that a beneficiary meets the two-year continuous work requirement.

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