Every year, approximately 5,000 people enter the United States from abroad to be religious workers. However, extensive immigration backlogs are forcing religious workers out of work, and in some cases, even forcing them to leave the country.
The R-1 Visa Process
One mechanism through which religious workers gain legal status in the United States is the R-1 visa. The R-1 visa permits nonimmigrants to enter the United States temporarily to be employed at least part time by a bona fide nonprofit religious organization here, working solely as a minister, in a religious vocation, or in a religious occupation.
Under the R-1 visa, a religious worker may stay in the United States for 30 months, and that period can be extended up to 5 years. However, when the R-1 employment ends, the religious worker must leave the country. The processing time for an R-1 visa varies, but without premium processing, it can be as much as 6 to 12 months.
Obtaining Lawful Permanent Residence as a Religious Worker
For many religious workers, the R-1 visa is a steppingstone to lawful permanent residence (a green card). Religious workers are often eligible for an employment-based fourth preference visa, otherwise known as an EB-4 visa. To apply, the religious worker must file a Form I-360 petition with USCIS, and if granted, this petition provides the religious worker with a green card. Unlike the R-1 nonimmigrant visa, which has no numerical limit, the EB-4 category can provide no more than 10,000 green cards each year. Unlike in other visa categories, however, this limit is rarely reached.
Religious Workers Face Ongoing Delays
According to a recent article by the Boston Pilot, 13 Roman Catholic priests from the Diocese of Little Rock are facing ongoing delays relating to their immigration status, causing them to stop working, and in some cases, even leave the country. Deacon Matt Glover, diocesan chancellor of canonical affairs, noted that since 2017, the processing of immigration applications “to put it charitably, is hugely backlogged.” A number of Little Rock priests have been forced to cease their work or depart the country as a result of these delays, greatly disrupting the work of the diocese. Deacon Glover noted the delays “can create this sequence of events where there’s real instability, not just within leadership of a parish, but just the priestly ministry, the spiritual ministry to the people of a parish.”
The situation the Arkansas priests are facing affect religious workers across the country. Whether due to delayed employment authorization applications or delayed green card applications, religious workers are forced to choose between their vocation and their legal status to live or work in the United States.
Lawmakers Call on USCIS for Action
The ongoing delays inspired action from Senators Susan Collins and Tim Kaine to jointly author a letter that called on USCIS to address the significant delays affecting religious workers. The letter highlights the unique hardships that delays cause religious workers, noting that forcing them to leave the country results in a strain on houses of worship here, ultimately leading to a deterioration of religious services.
While USCIS works to address the ongoing backlog of immigration applications, the ongoing and significant delays affecting religious workers underscore the need for careful planning and guidance for any individual seeking to navigate this process.