Immigrant Religious Workers

This category includes immigrants seeking to enter the United States:

  • As ministers of a religious denomination;
  • To work for a religious organization in a professional capacity; or
  • To work for a religious organization in a religious vocation or occupation.

With respect to professional religious workers and other religious workers, immigration for these two categories is limited in two ways:

  1. only 5,000 visas are available per year for these immigrants; and
  2. immigration in these categories must take place by September 30, 2004.

All religious workers, whether they are ministers, professionals, or other religious workers, must satisfy the following requirements:

  • membership in a religious denomination having a bona fide nonprofit, religious organization in the United States for at least two years immediately preceding the time of application for admission; and
  • engaging in a religious vocation, professional religious work, or other religious work continuously for at least that two-year period.

A ''religious denomination'' is defined as a religious group or community of believers having some form of ecclesiastical government, a creed or statement of faith, some form of worship, a code of doctrine and discipline, religious services, established places of religious worship, and religious congregations. A inter-denominational religious organization recognized under § 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code is also treated as a religious denomination.

In Matter of N -, 51 I&N Dec 173 (INS Central Office, 1953), the INS found the Salvation Army to be a religious organization for purposes of the immigration statute. The evidence that the INS found particularly compelling was the fact that the Salvation Army:

  • Was incorporated in various states of the United States,
  • Was a worldwide religious organization,
  • Had a recognized creed or form of worship,
  • Had a definite ecclesiastical government,
  • Had a formal code of doctrine and discipline,
  • Had a distinct religious history,
  • Had a membership, not associated with any other church or denomination,
  • Had ministers selected after completing prescribed courses of training,
  • Had its own literature,
  • Had established places of religious worship,
  • Maintained religious congregations and conducted religious services,
  • Maintained a Sunday school for religious instruction, and
  • Conducted schools for preparation of its ministers, who in addition to conducting religious services, perform marriage ceremonies, bury the dead, christen children, and advise and instruct the members of their congregation.

These general criteria have been used by the INS as a guideline to determine whether a religious group is a religious denomination under the statute.

The religious denomination must have a bona fide nonprofit, religious organization in the United States. Such an organization is one that is exempt from taxation as described in §501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code as it relates to religious organizations, or one that has never sought such exemption but establishes that it would be eligible if it had applied for it.

Ministers of Religion

An applicant for special immigrant status as a minister must meet the following requirements:

  • The immigrant must seek to enter the United States solely for the purpose of carrying on the vocation of minister of a religious denomination. If otherwise eligible, a minister coming to the U.S. primarily in an administrative capacity may qualify, so long as the assigned duties are primarily related to the vocation of minister.
  • The immigrant must have been a minister of a religious denomination continuously for at least the two years immediately preceding the application for admission. The regulations do not require a particular means of financial support for the minister. The Service, however, has interpreted this lack of specificity as a requirement that the minister has been financially supported during her requisite preceding experience in the same manner that she will be in the position for which special immigrant classification is sought. A minister will not be disqualified if prevented from meeting this two-year requirement by circumstances beyond his or her control, e.g., confinement in a concentration camp or flight as a refugee. The two-year ministerial service may have been with a different religious denomination, since the U.S. church apparently found his or her religious views and practices compatible with theirs. And the applicant's ordination may have taken place at any time, no matter how recently, provided that the applicant has actually been carrying on the vocation of a minister for at least two years.
  • The immigrant must have been authorized by the religious denomination to conduct religious worship and to perform other duties usually performed by authorized members of the clergy of that religion.
  • The immigrant's services as a minister must be needed and requested by the religious denomination.

Other Religious Workers

The 1990 Act expanded the scope of the religious worker special immigrant category by including persons who seek to enter the U.S. (before September 30, 2004) to work: (i) at the request of a religious organization in a professional capacity in a religious vocation or occupation; or (ii) for the organization in a religious vocation or occupation.

Terms relating to the three types of other religious workers are defined in the regulations as follows:

  • Professional capacity: an activity in a religious vocation or occupation for which the minimum of a U.S. baccalaureate degree or a foreign equivalent degree is required.
  • Religious occupation: an activity that relates to a traditional religious function. Examples of individuals in religious occupations include, liturgical workers, religious instructors or counselors, cantors, catechists, workers in religious hospitals or religious health care facilities, missionaries, religious translators or broadcasters. Such workers do not include janitors, maintenance workers, clerks, fund raisers, or persons solely involved in the solicitation of donations.
  • Religious vocation: a calling to religious life evidenced by the demonstration of commitment practiced in the religious denomination, such as the taking of vows. Examples of individuals with a religious vocation include nuns, monks, and religious brothers and sisters.