Visas for religious workers choice corner

Atty. Paul Choi

(Paul Choi is an immigration attorney and professor of law located at 16000 Ventura Blvd. Ste 1201, Encino, CA. 91436.  Atty  Choi will answer all questions regarding immigration and naturalization for free. Address questions to or telephone 818 714-2226.  Atty Choi is pleased to announce that his administrator is Philip Abramowitz .)

Question:  I am presently in the U.S. as a tourist in legal status. I am a member of an evangelical Christian church in the Philippines.  I have a church in the United States that wants to offer me a job to work as a lay minister and teacher.  How can I obtain a working visa?  What are the requirements?  When can I apply?  Can I work part time in addition to the work for the church such as a caregiver?.  Can I work part time for the church?  How difficult is it to have the visa approved?

Answer: At the present time visas and permanent residence for religious workers and ministers are quite simple to obtain if you are aware of the requirements and follow them carefully.  There are a lot of pitfalls and errors to watch out for that are fatal to your application.  This is why it is a very good idea to get the advice of an immigration attorney who has done this many many times before and knows the ropes.

The laws granting benefits to religious workers were written liberally with the intent of easing the transfer of foreign ministers and religious workers to the U.S. however over the last several years the USCIS has uncovered many cases of fraud and fraudulent religious organizations and now the rules have become more strict.

Over the past few years the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the US Consulates overseas, and the USCIS has determined that the R visa category is susceptible to fraud. The USCIS has found that as many as one-third of the cases filed under the R visa category are fraudulent. Because of the perceived ease in obtaining an R-1 visa, and the relative ease of moving from the non-immigrant status to permanent residence, the incidence of fraud has continued to rise.
To battle this increase in fraud in the category USCIS, the USCIS instituted new guidelines in 2007 to make changes to the Religious Worker Visa Classifications to help weed out fraud.  Among these changes is the requirement that the USCIS conduct an investigation of the U.S. based church before approving a religious worker petition.  This entails a site inspection where an investigator of the Dept of Homeland Security will  visit the church, question its directors and determine if the church is a valid and recognized religious organization and whether there is a valid job for the petitioned worker. Issues such as the size of the church, the building in which it is housed, the assets of the church and the need for a religious worker are all considered to determine if the job offer is legitimate.

To qualify for the R-1 visa, you must have been associated with the religious organization for at least the last two years. It does not mean that you have to have worked for the church only that you were a member of the religious organization during this time.  You don’t need any formal education or even an ordination provided you can perform the duties of the position. The position must be in a religious capacity and if the church ordinarily pays its religious workers, must be a paid position. (If the religious normally prohibits the receipt of income by its leaders, such as Buddhist monks, the lack of salary can be justified and waived.)
The petitioning church must be recognized as a nonprofit religious organization and must submit a currently valid determination letter from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).
An R-1 visa holder can remain in the U.S. for up to five years. If the religious worker has been continuously employed in a religious capacity for the same religious denomination for the last two years, the worker can apply for permanent residence through a petition as a special immigrant.

It is not advisable to work a second secular job as a caregiver as the religious job must earn sufficient money so that you are not required to secure a second job. You are not permitted to work outside of your position with the religious organization and you cannot perform lay activities, even on a part time basis unless they are incident to your profession.

Again, it is best to seek professional advice before filing your petition.  Some attorneys, such as our firm, even provide discounted rates for religious workers so you should also inquire about special fees for religious organizations.

(Paul Choi will answer all questions regarding immigration and naturalization for FREE. Address questions to or call 818 714-2226. He is located at 16000 Ventura Blvd. Ste. 1201, Encino, CA. 91436. Phil Abramowitz can be reached at or on his cell at 818 324-8110). â– 


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