EB-4 Visa Eligibility for Ministers and Religious Workers

Both leaders and helpers in religious organizations of all major denominations may be eligible for lawful permanent residence in the United States.

Special immigrant status (a green card under the employment fourth preference category) may be granted to ministers and other religious workers entering the United States for employment at recognized nonprofit religious organizations. People seeking this special immigrant status must meet various criteria before applying for a green card.

If you qualify, your spouse and unmarried children under the age of 21 may also receive green cards to accompany you.

IMPORTANT NOTE: For purposes of non-minister religious workers, this provision is set to expire, or "sunset," in September of 2015. It may be extended, but such extensions are usually announced at the last minute. If you plan to apply in this category as a religious worker, be sure to get your application in well before the deadline.

Who Qualifies as a Minister or Religious Worker?

According to the immigration laws' definition, a minister (SD-category) is someone authorized by a recognized religious denomination to conduct religious activities. This includes not only ministers, priests, and rabbis, but also salaried Buddhist monks, commissioned officers of the Salvation Army, practitioners and nurses of the Christian Science Church, and ordained deacons.

Usually, to be considered a minister, you must have formal recognition from the religion in question, such as a license, certificate of ordination, or other qualification to conduct religious worship.

The subcategory of “other religious workers” (SR-category) covers people who are in a “religious vocation” or “religious occupation” and are authorized to perform normal religious duties, but are not considered part of the clergy. This includes anyone performing a traditional religious function, such as liturgical workers, religious instructors, religious counselors, cantors, catechists, workers in religious hospitals or religious health care facilities, missionaries, religious translators, or religious broadcasters.

Who is left out of this list? You won't qualify if you are a worker involved in purely nonreligious functions, such as a janitor, maintenance worker, clerical staffperson, fundraiser, or even a singer. It also does not cover volunteers.

Internal USCIS decisions have added that religious workers must have had some formal religious training or theological education -- training that was established by the governing body of their denomination.  

Other Eligibility Criteria for Special Immigrant Religious Workers

In order to qualify for this type of green card, you must not only meet the definition of minister or other religious worker, but additionally meet the following criteria:

  • You must have been a member for at least the past two years of a recognized religion that has a bona fide nonprofit organization
    in the United States.
  • During those two years, you must have been employed continuously (though not necessarily full-time) by that same religious group.
  • Your sole purpose in coming to the U.S. must be to work as a minister of that religion (and your denomination must need additional ministers), or, at the request of
    the organization, to work in some other capacity related to the religion’s activities in the United States.
  • If applying as a religious worker, you are working in a traditionally permanent, salaried position within the denomination and are assigned only religious duties.

Overview of the Application Process

To start the process, either the worker or the U.S. employer must complete Form I-360, the Petition for Amerasian, Widower, or Special Immigrant, which is available for free download on the website of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) at www.uscis.gov.

The employer will need to provide supporting documents to accompany the form, such as documentation of its tax exemption or religious denomination certification. The U.S. organization must show how they intend to compensate religious workers. The evidence can include room and board information, budgets, or prior compensation for similar positions.

The minister or religious worker him or herself must also provide various documents to accompany the I-130, starting with evidence of membership in the religious organization. If you are a religious worker already being employed by the same organization, provide copies of your IRS Form W-2 or certified tax returns. Or if you are self-supporting, provide such information as bank statements and other sources of support.

Ministers must provide additional information. For example, they have to provide copies of their certificate of ordination or equivalentand proof—such as curriculum and transcripts that they have met the theological education or equivalent required by the religious organization.  

If the number of petitions is greater than the number of available EB-4 visas when you apply, you wait until your Priority Date is current, and a visa is available to you.   (Fortunately, there is rarely a wait in this category.)

After the I-360 petition has been approved by USCIS, you and your accompanying relatives submit your applications for a green card, either to a U.S. consulate outside the United States, or possibly to a USCIS office within the United States (an option called adjustment of status, which is mainly available to people who are already legally in the United States). For more information on overseas procedures, see What Happens During Consular Processing? For more information on applying within the U.S., see our Adjustment of Status FAQ.

The final step in the process is to attend an interview, either at the U.S. consulate or USCIS office. If coming from abroad, you will enter the U.S. with your immigrant visa, at which time you become a permanent resident. Your green card should a few several weeks after approval or U.S. entry.

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