Religious Worker Visa

By Keil Hackley

June 2004 – The 1990 Immigration Act established a special visa category for ministers and religious workers, under which they can file for a nonimmigrant or “special immigrant” R-1 visa. Before the 1990 inclusion and specification of a religious worker category, the U.S. admitted ministers without numerical limits, however had not included a provision that would grant visa status to other types of religious workers, especially since Congress at the time identified religious communities to be vying for foreign religious workers in order to uphold the religious traditions and serve the community by performing pastoral and other religious services.

In order to be granted nonimmigrant R-1 status for an initial three-year period with the possibility to extend the stay for another two years for a total of five years, an R-1 applicant needs to establish that he or she has been a member of a religious denomination with a corresponding bona fide nonprofit, religious organization in the U.S. for the two years immediately preceding the R-1 visa application. The applicant needs to prove that the sole purpose of the U.S. stay is to either carry out the vocation of minister of the indicated religious denomination, to work at the request of an organization in a professional capacity in a religious vocation or occupation, or to work for an organization that is affiliated with the religious denomination and is exempt from taxation. In terms of remuneration, the statute requires information about methods and amount of pay to make sure that the religious worker will not engage in second employment while in the U.S. R-1 applicants are allowed to volunteer in a religious occupation or vocation but their financial resources must prove that he or she will not become a public charge. An R-1 applicant further needs to prove the existence of a foreign residence, which he or she has no intention of abandoning.

The broader category, “workers in a religious occupation” applies to an activity related to a traditional religious function. Some examples are: religious instructors or counselors, catechists, religious translators and broadcasters or workers in religious hospitals or religious health care facilities among others. The religious occupation category includes professional functions that require at least a bachelor’s degree as well as nonprofessional functions.

The R-1 temporary visa status has no numerical cap. R-1 applicants can directly apply at a U.S. consulate abroad without having to obtain prior approval from the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Service. Aliens already present in the U.S. can seek a change in nonimmigrant status by preparing a petition package to be sent to the Service Center adjudicating cases in the area of the sponsoring religious organization.

The spouse and minor children of an R-1 religious worker will be able to obtain an R-2 visa. This type of visa does not allow the beneficiary to seek work without changing the status to a different employment-authorizing visa category. Due to the fact that religious workers often receive marginal paychecks, the R-1 applicant has to supply additional information about financial resources that attest to the capability of supporting accompanying family members.

M. Keil Hackley is a partner at the Weston law firm Hackley & Robertson, P.A. and can be reached at or at 954-349-4994.