Green Card for religious worker

Green Card for religious workerThe Immigration and Nationality Act provides two categories of visas for religious workers, one for temporary or nonimmigrant "R" status and one for legal permanent resident or immigrant "SD" status in the United States. This article covers requirements and application procedures for the immigrant "SD" visa. This status is under the fourth preference special immigrant category.

Definitions of Religious Workers

Religious workers include ministers of religion who are authorized by a recognized denomination to conduct religious worship and perform other duties usually performed by members of the clergy such as administering the sacraments, or their equivalent. The term does not apply to lay preachers. Religious vocation means a calling to religious life, evidenced by the demonstration of a lifelong commitment, such as taking of vows. Examples include nuns, monks, and religious brothers and sisters. Religious occupation means a habitual engagement in an activity which relates to a traditional religious function. Examples include liturgical workers, religious instructors or cantors, catechists, workers in religious hospitals, missionaries, religious translators, or religious broadcasters. It does not include janitors, maintenance workers, clerks, fund raisers, solicitors of donations, or similar occupations. The activity of a lay-person who will be engaged in a religious occupation must relate to a traditional religious function. The activity must embody the tenets of the religion and have religious significance, relating primarily, if not exclusively, to matters of the spirit as they apply to the religion.


To be eligible under this classification, the alien must:

  1. For at least two years immediately preceding the time of application for admission, have been a member of a religious denomination that has a bona fide non-profit, religious organization in the United States;
  2. Be coming to the United States to work in a full-time (average of at least 35 hours per week) compensated position in one of the following occupations:
    1. Solely in the vocation of a minister of that religious denomination;
    2. A religious vocation either in a professional or nonprofessional capacity; or
    3. A religious occupation either in a professional or nonprofessional capacity.
  3. Be coming to work for a bona fide non-profit religious organization in the United States, or a bona fide organization which is affiliated with the religious denomination in the United States.
  4. Have been working in one of the above positions, either abroad or in lawful immigration status in the United States, and after the age of 14 years continuously for at least the two-year period immediately preceding the filing of the petition. The prior religious work need not correspond precisely to the type of work to be performed. A break in the continuity of the work during the preceding two years will not affect eligibility so long as:
    1. The alien was still employed as a religious worker;
    2. The break did not exceed two years;
    3. The nature of the break was for further religious training or for sabbatical that did not involve unauthorized work in the United States. However, an alien must have been a member of the petitioner's denomination throughout the two years of qualifying employment.


Definition  of "Religious Denomination" a "religious denomination" is defined as a religious group or community of believers having some form of ecclesiastical government, and includes one or more of the following: A recognized common creed or statement of faith shared among the denomination's members;

  1. A common form of worship;
  2. A common formal code of doctrine and discipline;
  3. Common religious services and ceremonies;
  4. Common established places of religious worship or religious congregations; or
  5. Comparable indicia of a bona fide religious denomination.

Background Requirements

A religious worker is a person who for the past two years has been a member of a religious denomination which has a bona fide nonprofit, religious organization in the United States; and who has been carrying on the vocation, professional work, or other work described below, continuously for the past two years; and seeks to enter the U.S. to work solely:
    •    As a minister of that denomination; or
    •    In a professional capacity in a religious vocation or occupation for that organization; or
    •    In a religious vocation or occupation for the organization or its nonprofit affiliate.


Does the Organization Qualify as a Religious Organization? In determining whether a religious organization qualifies as a religious denomination, we can refer to Matter of N, 5 I. & N. Dec. 173 (INS Central Office 1953). In Matter of N, it was found that the Salvation Army was a religious organization for purposes of the immigration statute. The decision opined that the Salvation Army:

  1. Was incorporated in various states of the United States,
  2. Was a worldwide religious organization,
  3. Had a recognized creed or form of worship,
  4. Had a definite ecclesiastical government,
  5. Had a formal code of doctrine and discipline,
  6. Had a distinct religious history,
  7. Had a membership, not associated with any other church or denomination,
  8. Had ministers selected after completing prescribed courses of training,
  9. Had its own literature,
  10. Had established places of religious worship,
  11. Maintained religious congregations and conducted religious services,
  12. Maintained a Sunday school for religious instruction, and
  13. 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.

The above is also reinforced in 9 FAM §42.32(d)(1) N3.2. In addition, according to 9 FAM §42.32(d)(1) N3.3, the Christian Science Church is considered a religious denomination with a bona fide organization in the United States.



Any person, including the applicant, can file a Form I-360 petition with the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services in the Department of Homeland Security (USCIS) for a person who meets the religious worker criteria. A petition for a person who is not a minister may only be filed until October 1, 2000, and any immigrant visa issued to such person shall not be valid beyond October 1, 2000. After the petition is approved by the USCIS, the applicant will be sent instructions on how to apply for a fourth preference special immigrant visa for religious workers.

Additional Documentation

The I-360 petition must be accompanied by:

  1. A letter from the authorized official of the religious organization establishing that the proposed services and applicant qualify as listed above;
  2. A letter from the authorized official of the religious organization attesting to the applicant''s membership in the religious denomination and explaining, in detail, the person''s religious work and all employment during the past two years, and for the proposed employment; and
  3. Evidence establishing that the religious organization, and any affiliate which will employ the person, is a bona fide nonprofit religious organization in the U.S. and is exempt from taxation under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986.

Visa Ineligibility/Waiver

The immigration laws of the United States, in order to protect the health, welfare, and security of the United States, prohibit the issuance of a visa to certain applicants. Examples of applicants who must be refused visas are those who: have a communicable disease such as tuberculosis, or have a dangerous physical and mental disorder, or are drug addicts; have committed serious criminal acts; are terrorists, subversives, members of a totalitarian party, or former Nazi war criminals; have used illegal means to enter the United States; or are ineligible for citizenship. Some former exchange visitors must live abroad for 2 years. If found to be ineligible, the consular officer will then advise the applicant if the law provides for some form of waiver.

Other Important Documentation
Documents for Visa Application

All applicants must submit certain personal documents such as passports, birth certificates, police certificates, and other civil documents, as well as evidence that they will not become public charges in the United States. The U.S. consular office will inform visa applicants of the documents needed as their applications are processed.

Medical Examinations
Before the issuance of an immigrant visa, every applicant, regardless of age, must undergo a medical examination. The examination will be conducted by a doctor designated by the consular officer. Examination costs must be borne by the applicant, in addition to the visa fees.

Visa Fees
For current immigrant visa application fees, see Fees for Visa Services. Fees must be paid for each intending immigrant regardless of age and are not refundable. Local currency equivalents are acceptable. Fees should not be sent to the consular office unless requested specifically. USCIS charges separate fees for filing petitions. See Check Filing Fees on the USCIS website for current USCIS fees.

Numerical Limitations
Whenever there are more qualified applicants for a category than there are available numbers, the category will be considered oversubscribed, and immigrant visas will be issued in the chronological order in which the petitions were filed until the numerical limit for the category is reached. The filing date of a petition becomes the applicant's priority date. Immigrant visas cannot be issued until an applicant's priority date is reached. In certain heavily oversubscribed categories, there may be a waiting period of several years before a priority date is reached. Check the Visa Bulletin for the latest priority dates.

Family Members
An immigrant religious worker's spouse and unmarried children under 21 years of age may be granted derivative immigration status.
Since no advance assurances can be given that a visa will be issued, applicants are advised not to make final travel arrangements, not to dispose of their property, and not to give up their jobs until visas have been issued to them. Some visa applications require further administrative processing, which takes additional time after the visa applicant’s interview by a Consular Officer. An immigrant visa can be valid for six months from date of issuance.
With few exceptions, a person born in the United States has a claim to U.S. citizenship. Persons born in countries other than the U.S. may have a claim, under United States law, to U.S. nationality if:
    •    Either parent was born or naturalized in the United States, or
    •    Either parent was a United States citizen at the time of applicant's birth.
Any applicant believing that he or she may have a claim to U.S. citizenship should not apply for a visa until his or her citizenship has been determined by the consular office.
How to Apply for a Social Security Number Card
Before your relative arrives in the United States, you can help them learn how to obtain a social security number card after he/she becomes a legal permanent resident. To learn more about this process, visit the website for the Social Security Administration.
Further Visa Inquiries
    •    Questions on visa application procedures and visa ineligibilities should be made to the American consular office abroad by the applicant. Before submitting your inquiry, we request that you carefully review this web site and also the Embassy Consular web site abroad. Very often you will find the information you need.
    •    If your inquiry concerns a visa case in progress overseas, you should first contact the U.S. Embassy or Consulate handling your case for status information. Select U.S. Embassy or Consulate, and you can choose the Embassy or Consulate Internet site you need to contact.