R-1 visas allow foreign nationals to temporarily enter the U.S. to work in a variety of religious worker capacities, including minister, rabbi, imam, religious studies teacher or a variety of other religious professional or other worker positions. Visa issuance is premised on a job offer from a qualifying religious organization, with the position being either part time (at least 20 hours weekly) or full time. A proper discussion regarding which workers, organizations and denominations are eligible for approval is one that involves many details, variables and bureaucratic hurdles.

The U.S. organization filing the underlying petition must be not-for-profit, hold a tax exemption as a religious body and pursuant to Internal Revenue Service guidelines and be connected to a particular religious denomination in the U.S.

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Furthermore, eligibility will depend on the petitioned religious worker documenting their membership in the denomination at issue (which is connected to a U.S. not for profit entity) for 2 years or more in the period leading up to the R-1 visa petition submission.

Religious occupations include positions involving responsibilities that are primarily connected to a traditional or professional religious role and for the purpose of educating, indoctrinating, messaging or spiritual enrichment according to a particular religious system of beliefs and values.

Specifically excluded from eligibility for classification as a religious occupation are jobs that are clerical, janitorial or otherwise do not intrinsically involve religion related duties – although the duties are carried out at a religious institution.

To gain entry as an R-1 Minister, a foreign national must have received formal specific authorization or ordination from a particular denomination, confirming their training and suitability to lead religious services or otherwise carry out roles typically carried out by a member of the clergy..

A foreign national’s qualifying denominational membership depends on their having the requisite ties to the religious organization for the two-year period just prior to the submission of the R-1 visa petition, and an identical denomination as the U.S. entity submitting the visa petition. For more information on this issue see 8 CFR 214.2(r)(3) as well as the U.S. Department of State’s Foreign Affairs Manuel: https://fam.state.gov/FAM/09FAM/09FAM040216.html.

The U.S. religious organization’s visa petition must include highly specific details regarding the duties the worker will be performing along with a description of the type of compensation the worker will be receiving, whether via conventional salary or other method.

Typically, as set forth in 8 CFR 214.2(r)(16) and before approving any initial petition, USCIS will carry out an onsite inspection of the petitioning organization’s premises to confirm the authenticity of representations regarding the nature of the organization and the position sought to be filled. Follow up site visits by CIS agents to again confirm the bona fides of the organization and terms of the underlying petition are not uncommon.

Initial R-1 visa petition approval can allow for entry on an R-1 visa for up to 30 months, and with an opportunity to extend for an additional 30 months. During this period, religious workers seeking to live permanently in the U.S. may look to their sponsoring organization to commence the I-360, Special Immigration Religious Worker process on their behalf.

An R-1 visa holder’s spouse and under 21 year old children are eligible to obtain an R-2 visa to accompany their family member and remain in the U.S. for the identical period of admission granted to the principal R-1 visa holder.

The many requirements and bureaucratic hurdles petitioning parties must overcome in the world of R-1 visas is the result of decades of misuse and even fraud when it came to these types of filings. In today’s environment, facilitating R-1 visa issuance is feasible but only when the sponsoring institution and the prospective worker are ready to present the requisite documentation and informational details.