The USCIS recently issued a policy memorandum that eases the work requirements that a Religious Worker must fulfill in order to be eligible for a green card as a Special Immigrant Religious Worker. The shift in the USCIS’ interpretation of the law may now allow more individuals who are performing religious work to qualify for permanent residency.
There are special immigrant visas given to religious workers who seek to enter the United States 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 applicant 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 2 years before applying for a visa. This requirement may be fulfilled through religious work either in a foreign country or in the United States. 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.
The recent policy change involves the last requirement of 2 years of continuous full-time work as a religious worker immediately prior to the submission of the visa petition. Previously, the USCIS interpreted the law to require that if the religious work is performed in the United States, that the work must have been lawful and authorized by the USCIS. This interpretation was challenged in the court case of Shalom Pentecostal Church v. Acting Secretary DHS, 783 F.3d 156 (3d Cir. 2015). In that case, the court ruled against the USCIS, stating that it is beyond their legal authority to mandate that the required work must be authorized.
Consequently, the USCIS issued the recent policy memorandum in order to implement apply the court’s decision nationwide to all religious worker petitions. The USCIS now confirms that the 2 years of required work experience in a religious capacity can either be authorized or not authorized by the USCIS. If an individual who is undocumented in the US is performing full-time religious work for at least 2 years, the change in policy may now allow them to be classified as a Special Immigrant Religious Worker.
The new policy regarding Special Immigrant Religious Workers was effectively immediately when it was announced on July 5, 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.
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