Permanent Residency Through Religious Work

March 8, 2014


During this holy season of Lent, we recognize that the array of abundant services provided by religious workers are very highly valued throughout the American society.  Consequently, there are special immigrant visas given to religious workers who seek to enter the US or adjust status to that of a permanent resident in order to perform religious activities.  The special category of visas is known as the Special Immigrant Religious Worker category.


To qualify as a Special Immigrant Religious Worker, the following requirements must be fulfilled:


1)  The petitioner must be a bona fide religious organization.  The organization petitioning the religious worker must have a recognized creed, form of worship, and established place of worship.  Additionally, the organization must be legitimate and bona fide.  Lastly, the organization must be incorporated and either have tax-exempt status or qualify as a nonprofit organization.


2)  The religious worker must have an offer of employment by a U.S. religious organization to work in “a religious vocation or occupation.”  A religious occupation is one that relates to a traditional religious function, such as religious instructors, liturgical workers, cantors, and catechists.  A minister is a person who is authorized to conduct religious worship, such as priests, pastors, and rabbis.  A professional is one where the religious position requires at least a bachelor’s degree and where the individual has that degree.  A nonprofessional is one wherein a bachelor’s degree is not required.


3)  The immigrant must be working in a full-time religious vocation or occupation continuously for at least two years before applying for a visa.  This requirement may be fulfilled through religious work either in a foreign country or in the U.S.  If the qualifying work is in the U.S., an individual is eligible only if the employment had been authorized by the DHS.  Although the qualifying employment may be compensated or voluntary, the burden is on the individual to prove that he/she has been employed on a full-time (at least 35 hours per week) basis in a religious vocation or occupation.


There are significant advantages to seeking permanent residency as a Special Immigrant Religious Worker.  First, an individual does not need to go through the tedious task of obtaining a labor certification with the Department of Labor.  Also, an individual can self-petition so long as a job offer by a bona fide organization exists.


Further, the visa category for Special Immigrant Religious Workers has not been affected by the visa retrogressions that have caused most employment-based petitions to be delayed by a period of years.  Consequently, as soon as an individual has been classified as a Special Immigrant Religious Worker, he/she may immediately file the applications for adjustment of status and employment authorization.  Upon filing, an individual receives a work permit within 90 days.  Special immigrant religious workers may therefore rather quickly obtain a driver’s license, identification card, and social security number upon issuance of the work permit.


The law authorizing the Special Immigrant Religious Worker program is set to expire on September 30, 2015.  Individuals who have selflessly devoted their efforts for a religious cause should take the opportunity that is afforded to them so that they may find the security necessary to allow them to continue sharing their charitable deeds.


For further information, please schedule an appointment with an attorney at Aquino & Loew, Immigration Law Specialists