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Chapter 2 - Religious Workers

A. General Requirements

1. General Eligibility

A U.S. employer (petitioner) or an alien (self-petitioner) may file a Petition for Amerasian, Widow(er), or Special Immigrant (Form I-360) for special immigrant religious worker classification.[1] If applicable, the petitioner must submit a Religious Denomination Certification that is also a part of the petition. For at least 2 years preceding the filing of the petition, the religious worker must have been a member of a religious denomination having a bona fide nonprofit, religious organization in the United States.[2] The religious worker must be coming to the United States to work:

  • Solely as a minister of the U.S. employer’s denomination;

  • In a religious vocation either in a professional or nonprofessional capacity; or

  • In a religious occupation either in a professional or nonprofessional capacity.[3]

The religious worker must have been carrying on, after the age of 14 years, such work continuously for at least 2 years preceding the filing of the petition.[4] 

Religious workers in a religious vocation or occupation are included in the special immigrant religious worker program by statute on a temporary basis, the end date of which has been extended several times. Accordingly, such workers must enter the United States with a valid immigrant visa or adjust to permanent resident status (have an approved Application to Register Permanent Residence of Adjust Status (Form I-485)) before the expiration date stated in the most recent statutory renewal.[5]  USCIS provides the most recent expiration date for non-minister religious workers on the USCIS website. There is no fixed expiration date for ministers.

2. Definitions

Detailed explanations of the definitions for special immigrant religious workers may be found at 8 CFR 204.5(m). Eligibility for this classification is based on the following definitions:[6]

Bona Fide Nonprofit Religious Organization in the United States

A bona fide nonprofit religious organization is a religious organization exempt from taxation as described in section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Code. The organization must have a currently valid determination letter from the IRS confirming the tax exemption. Tax-exempt organization is defined below. The petitioner may submit an individual 501(c)(3) determination letter if the religious organization has its own ruling from the IRS or a letter for the group if it is covered under a group ruling.[7]

Bona Fide Organization That is Affiliated with the Religious Denomination

A bona fide organization that is affiliated with the religious denomination is an organization that is closely associated with a religious denomination. Religious denomination is defined below. The organization must be exempt from taxation as described in section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. The organization must have a currently valid determination letter from the IRS confirming the tax exemption. The petitioner must also submit additional documentation.[8]

Religious Denomination

A religious denomination is a religious group or community of believers that is governed or administered under a common type of ecclesiastical government with one or more of the following:

  • Recognized common creed or statement of faith shared among the denomination’s members;

  • Common form of worship;

  • Common formal code of doctrine and discipline; 

  • Common religious services and ceremonies; 

  • Common established places of religious worship or religious congregations; or 

  • Comparable evidence of a bona fide religious denomination. 

Denominational Membership

Denominational membership is defined as membership during at least the 2-year period immediately preceding the filing date of the petition, in the same type of religious denomination as the U.S. religious organization where the religious worker will work.

Minister

A minister position can take the form of various names or titles, depending on the religion, such as priest, minister, rabbi, and imam, among others, and is a person who, according to the denomination’s standards:

  • Is fully authorized by a religious denomination, and fully trained according to the denomination’s standards, to conduct religious worship and perform other duties usually performed by authorized members of the clergy of that denomination; 

  • Is not a lay preacher or a person not authorized to perform duties usually performed by clergy; 

  • Performs activities with a rational relationship to the religious calling of the minister; and 

  • Works solely as a minister in the United States, which may include administrative duties incidental to the duties of a minister.

Religious Occupation

A religious occupation is one that meets all of the following requirements within the religious denomination’s standards:

  • The duties must primarily relate to a traditional religious function and be recognized as a religious occupation within the denomination; 

  • The duties must be primarily related to, and must clearly involve, instilling or carrying out the religious creed and beliefs of the denomination; 

  • The duties do not include positions which are primarily administrative or support such as janitors, maintenance workers, clerical employees, fund raisers, persons solely involved in the solicitation of donations, or similar positions, although limited administrative duties that are only incidental to religious functions are permissible; and 

  • Religious study or training for religious work does not constitute a religious occupation, but a religious worker may pursue study or training incident to status. 

Religious Vocation

A religious vocation involves a formal lifetime commitment, through vows, investitures, ceremonies, or similar indicia, to a religious way of life. The religious denomination must have a class of persons whose lives are dedicated to religious practices and functions, as distinguished from the secular members of the religion. Examples of religious vocations include nuns, monks, and religious brothers and sisters.

Religious Worker

A religious worker is a person engaged in and, according to the denomination’s standards, qualified for a religious occupation or vocation, whether or not in a professional capacity, or as a minister.

Tax Exempt Organization

A tax exempt organization is one that has received a determination letter from the IRS establishing that it, or a group that it belongs to is exempt from taxation under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code.[9]

B. Petitioner Requirements

1. Attestation and Denomination Certification

As part of the Form I-360, an authorized official of the prospective U.S. employer must complete, sign, and date the Employer Attestation and, if applicable, an authorized official of the denomination must complete the Religious Denomination Certification.[10] The authorized official must sign the attestation, certifying under penalty of perjury that the attestation is true and correct.

If the religious worker is a self-petitioner and is also an authorized official of the prospective U.S. employer, the self-petitioner may sign the attestation.[11]

On the Employer Attestation portion of the Form I-360, the prospective employer must specifically attest to the following:[12]

  • The prospective employer’s status as a bona fide non-profit religious organization or a bona fide organization that is affiliated with a religious denomination and is exempt from taxation; 
  • The number of members of the prospective employer’s organization; 
  • The number of employees who work at the same location where the religious worker will be employed and a summary of those employees’ responsibilities; 
  • Number of aliens holding special immigrant or nonimmigrant religious worker status currently employed or employed within the past 5 years; 
  • Number of petitions for special immigrant and nonimmigrant religious workers for employment with the prospective employer filed on Form I-360 and Petition for a Nonimmigrant Worker (Form I-129) within the past 5 years; 
  • The title of the position offered to the religious worker; 
  • The complete package of salaried or non-salaried compensation being offered; 
  • A detailed description of the religious worker’s proposed daily duties; 
  • The compensated position being offered to the religious worker requires an average of at least 35 hours per week of work; 
  • The specific location(s) of the proposed employment; 
  • The religious worker is qualified to perform the duties of the offered position; 
  • The religious worker’s membership in the prospective employer’s denomination for at least 2 years prior to admission to the United States; 
  • The religious worker will not be engaged in secular employment and any compensation for religious work will be paid to the religious worker by the attesting employer; and 
  • The prospective employer’s ability and intention to compensate and otherwise support (through housing, for example) the religious worker at a level at which the religious worker and accompanying family members will not become public charges, and that funds to pay the alien's compensation do not include any monies obtained from the alien, excluding reasonable donations or tithing to the religious organization.

2. Verification of Evidence

USCIS may verify the submitted evidence through any means that USCIS determines as appropriate, up to and including an on-site inspection. If USCIS decides to conduct a pre-approval inspection, satisfactory completion of such an inspection will be a condition for approval of any petition.[13] The inspection may include:

  • A tour of the organization’s facilities, which may include inspection of the organization’s headquarters, satellite locations, or the work or living locations proposed for the religious worker; 

  • An interview with the organization’s officials; 

  • A review of the organization’s records related to compliance with immigration laws and regulations; and

  • An interview with any other persons or review of any other records that USCIS considers pertinent to the integrity of the organization.

3. Evidence of Tax Exempt Status

There are three different ways to establish an organization’s tax-exempt status to support a special immigrant religious worker filing on Form I-360.[14]

Individual Religious Organization Granted Individual Tax Exempt Status[15]

If the religious organization has its own determination from the IRS as a tax-exempt organization, the petitioner must submit a copy of the valid 501(c)(3) determination letter.

Individual Religious Organization Covered Under a Group Tax Exempt Ruling[16]

If the religious organization is recognized as tax exempt under group IRS tax-exempt determination, the petitioner must submit a copy of a currently valid 501(c)(3) determination letter for the group and evidence that the religious organization is covered under the group exemption.

Individual tax-exempt organization affiliated with a religious denomination[17]

If the organization is an individual tax-exempt organization affiliated with a religious organization, in addition to a copy of its valid 501(c)(3) determination letter, the petitioner must also submit: 

  • Documentation establishing its religious nature and purpose, such as a copy of the organizing instrument, specifying the nature and purpose of its own organization; 

  • Organizational literature, such as books, articles, brochures, calendars, flyers, and other literature describing the religious purpose and nature of its activities; and 

  • A religious denomination certification. 

4. Compensation Requirement

A religious worker must receive salaried or non-salaried compensation.[18] Salaried means receiving a traditional form of compensation (that is, paycheck). Non-salaried compensation includes support such as, but not limited to, room, board, medical care, or transportation.

The petitioner must submit verifiable evidence of how it intends to compensate the religious worker.[19] The evidence may include:

  • Past evidence of compensation for similar positions;

  • Budgets showing monies set aside for salaries, leases, etc.;

  • Documentation that food, housing, medical care, or transportation will be provided; and

  • If IRS documentation, such as IRS Form W-2 or certified tax returns, is available, it must be provided. If IRS documentation is unavailable, the petitioner must explain why it is unavailable and submit comparable verifiable documentation.[20]

C. Religious Worker Requirements

1. Evidence of Religious Worker’s Prior Employment

The religious worker’s qualifying experience during the 2 years immediately preceding the petition (or preceding any acceptable break in the continuity of the religious work) must have occurred after the age of 14.[21]

If Religious Worker Received Salaried Compensation

If the religious worker was employed in the United States during the 2 years immediately preceding the filing of the petition and received salaried compensation, the petitioner must submit IRS documentation that the religious worker received a salary, such as an IRS Form W-2 or certified copies of income tax returns.[22] 

If Religious Worker Received Non-salaried Compensation

If the religious worker was employed in the United States during the 2 years immediately preceding the filing of the petition and received non-salaried compensation, the petitioner must submit IRS documentation of the non-salaried compensation if available.[23] 

If Religious Worker Received No Salary but Provided His or Her Own Support

If the religious worker was employed in the United States during the 2 years immediately preceding the filing of the petition and received no salary but provided for his or her own support, and provided support for any dependents, the petitioner must show how support was maintained by submitting with the petition additional documents such as audited financial statements, financial institution records, brokerage account statements, trust documents signed by an attorney, or other verifiable evidence acceptable to USCIS.[24] 

If the religious worker was employed outside the United States during the 2 years immediately preceding the filing of the petition, the petitioner must submit comparable evidence of the religious work.[25]

If Religious Worker Had Unacceptable Break During 2-year Period Preceding Petition

A break in the continuity of the work during the preceding 2 years will not affect eligibility so long as: 

  • The beneficiary was still employed as a religious worker; 

  • The break did not exceed 2 years; and 

  • The nature of the break was for further religious training or for sabbatical. However, the religious worker must have been a member of the petitioner’s denomination throughout the 2 years of qualifying employment.[26] 

Additionally, events such as sick leave, pregnancy leave, spousal care, and vacations are typical in the normal course of any employment; USCIS does not consider these events a break of the 2-year requirement as long as the religious worker is still considered employed during that time.

If the religious worker was employed in the United States and there was a break in the continuity of the work that affected eligibility during the 2 years immediately preceding the filing of Form I-360, the 2-year clock must restart. The subsequent 2-year period of qualifying employment may be completed in or outside the United States.

2. Evidence Related to a Minister

If filing on behalf of a minister, the petitioner must submit the following additional initial evidence:[27]

  • A copy of the religious worker’s certificate of ordination or similar documents reflecting acceptance of the religious worker’s qualifications as a minister in the religious denomination;[28] and 
  • Documents reflecting the religious worker’s completion of any course of prescribed theological education at an accredited theological institution normally required or recognized by that religious denomination, including transcripts, curriculum, and documentation that establishes that the theological institution is accredited by the denomination.[29]

For denominations that do not require a prescribed theological education, rather than document such education, the petitioner must instead submit evidence of: 

  • The denomination’s requirements for ordination to minister; 

  • The duties allowed to be performed by virtue of ordination; 

  • The denomination’s levels of ordination, if any; and 

  • Documentation to establish the religious worker’s completion of the denomination’s requirements for ordination.[30] 

D. Derivative Beneficiaries

A spouse or child accompanying or following to join a principal immigrant who has requested benefits under this section may be accorded the same special immigrant classification as the principal alien.[31]

Footnotes


[^ 1] See 8 CFR 204.5(m)(6). As of November 8, 2010, the Form I-360 petition for the special immigrant religious worker classification may no longer be filed concurrently with that special immigrant religious worker’s adjustment of status application, Form I-485, pursuant to the order of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Ruiz-Diaz v. United States, 618 F.3d 1055 (9th Cir. Aug. 20, 2010). The Ninth Circuit’s decision vacated the District Court’s permanent injunction allowing for concurrent filing for special immigrant religious workers. Any I-485 application where the underlying basis is an I-360 petition seeking the classification of special immigrant religious worker must be filed based on an approved I-360 petition. See the legal settlement notice (PDF) (PDF, 44.09 KB). For more information on adjustment of status, see Volume 7, Adjustment of Status, Part F, Special Immigrant-Based (EB-4) Adjustment, Chapter 2, Religious Workers [7 USCIS-PM F.2].

[^ 2] See 8 CFR 204.5(m)(1).

[^ 3] See 8 CFR 204.5(m)(2).

[^ 4] See 8 CFR 204.5(m)(4). See 73 FR 72275 (PDF) (Nov. 26, 2008) for a general and detailed explanation pertaining to adjudication of special immigrant ministers of religion and other religious worker petitions.

[^ 5] See 8 CFR 204.5(m)(6).

[^ 6] See 8 CFR 204.5(m)(5).

[^ 7] See 8 CFR 204.5(m)(8).

[^ 8] See Section B, Petitioner Requirements, Subsection 3, Evidence of Tax Exempt Status [6 USCIS-PM H.2(B)(3)]. See 8 CFR 204.5(m)(8)(iii).

[^ 9] See Section B, Petitioner Requirements, Subsection 3, Evidence of Tax Exempt Status [6 USCIS-PM H.2(B)(3)].

[^ 10] See 8 CFR 204.5(m)(7). See 8 CFR 204.5(m)(8)(iii)(B).

[^ 11] See 8 CFR 204.5(m)(7).

[^ 12] See 8 CFR 204.5(m)(7).

[^ 13] See 8 CFR 204.5(m)(12).

[^ 14] See 8 CFR 204.5(m)(8).

[^ 15] See 8 CFR 204.5(m)(8)(i).

[^ 16] See 8 CFR 204.5(m)(8)(ii).

[^ 17] See 8 CFR 204.5(m)(8)(ii).

[^ 18] See 8 CFR 204.5(m)(2) and 8 CFR 204.5(m)(10).

[^ 19] See 8 CFR 204.5(m)(10). A self-petitioning religious worker must submit evidence of how the prospective employer intends to provide such compensation. See 8 CFR 204.5(m)(7)(xi) and 8 CFR 204.5(m)(7)(xii).

[^ 20] See 8 CFR 204.5(m)(10).

[^ 21] See 8 CFR 204.5(m)(11). The regulations at 8 CFR 204.5(m)(4) and (11) specify that any qualifying employment an alien performs in the United States must have occurred while the alien was in a lawful immigration status. However, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Shalom Pentecostal Church v. Acting Secretary DHS, 783 F.3d 156 (3rd Cir. 2015), found this regulatory requirement to be inconsistent with the statute. As a result of this decision and a growing number of Federal courts reaching the same conclusion, USCIS decided to apply the Shalom Pentecostal decision nationally. As of July 2015, USCIS does not deny special immigrant religious worker petitions based on the lawful status requirements at 8 CFR 204.5(m)(4) and 8 CFR 204.5(m)(11). Therefore, any employment in the United States can be used to qualify an alien under the special immigrant religious worker requirements, regardless of whether the alien was in a lawful or unlawful immigration status.

[^ 22] See 8 CFR 204.5(m)(11)(i).

[^ 23] See 8 CFR 204.5(m)(11)(ii).

[^ 24] See 8 CFR 204.5(m)(11)(iii).

[^ 25] See 8 CFR 204.5(m)(11) .

[^ 26] See 8 CFR 204.5(m)(4).

[^ 27] See 8 CFR 204.5(m)(9).

[^ 28] See 8 CFR 204.5(m)(9)(i).

[^ 29] See 8 CFR 204.5(m)(9)(ii).

[^ 30] See 8 CFR 204.5(m)(9)(iii).

[^ 31] See INA 203(d).

Resources

Legal Authorities

26 U.S.C. 501 - Exemption from tax on corporations, certain trusts, etc.

73 FR 72275 (PDF) - Special immigrant and nonimmigrant religious workers

8 CFR 204.5 - Petitions for employment-based immigrants

8 CFR 204.9 - Special immigrant status for certain aliens who have served honorably (or are enlisted to serve) in the Armed Forces of the United States for at least 12 years

INA 101(a)(27) - Definitions of certain special immigrants

INA 201 - Worldwide level of immigration

INA 202 - Numerical limitations on individual foreign states

INA 203 - Allocation of immigrant visas

INA 203(b)(4) - Certain special immigrants

INA 204(a)(1)(G)(i) - Petitioning procedure

INA 2048 CFR 204 - Procedure for granting immigrant status

Legal Settlement Notice (PDF, 44.09 KB) - Ruiz-Diaz v. United States

Pub. L. 109-163 (PDF) - Section 1059 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2006, as amended – Special immigrant status for persons serving as translators with U.S. armed forces

Pub. L. 110-181 (PDF) - Section 1244 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2008, as amended – Special immigrant status for certain Iraqis

Pub. L. 111-8 (PDF) - Section 602(b), Title VI of the Afghan Allies Protection Act of 2009

Appendices

No appendices available at this time.

Updates

Technical Update - Incorporating Existing Guidance into the Policy Manual

This technical update is part of an initiative to move existing policy guidance from the Adjudicator’s Field Manual (AFM) into the Policy Manual. This update does not make major substantive changes but consolidates and incorporates existing AFM guidance into the Policy Manual, streamlining USCIS’ immigration policy while removing obsolete information. This guidance replaces Chapters 22.3 and 26 of the AFM, related appendices, and policy memoranda.

Technical Update - Moving the Adjudicator’s Field Manual Content into the USCIS Policy Manual

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is updating and incorporating relevant Adjudicator’s Field Manual (AFM) content into the USCIS Policy Manual. As that process is ongoing, USCIS has moved any remaining AFM content to its corresponding USCIS Policy Manual Part, in PDF format, until relevant AFM content has been properly incorporated into the USCIS Policy Manual. To the extent that a provision in the USCIS Policy Manual conflicts with remaining AFM content or Policy Memoranda, the updated information in the USCIS Policy Manual prevails. To find remaining AFM content, see the crosswalk (PDF) between the AFM and the Policy Manual.

Technical Update - Replacing the Term “Foreign National”

This technical update replaces all instances of the term “foreign national” with “alien” throughout the Policy Manual as used to refer to a person who meets the definition provided in INA 101(a)(3) [“any person not a citizen or national of the United States”].