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The Immigration and Nationality Act provides visa classifications for religious workers on both a permanent and a temporary basis. Permanent religious workers are afforded "special immigrant" status, while temporary religious workers are covered by the "R" nonimmigrant category. 

The law provides visas for the three groups of religious "special immigrants": (1) ministers of religion; (2) professionals working in religious vocations or occupations; and (3) other workers in religious vocations or occupations. These individuals must work for U.S. nonprofit religious organizations or at nonprofit religious organizations affiliated with qualified religious denominations. The two non-minister categories, religious professionals, and other religious workers are subject to and further limited to not more than 5,000 of the annual special immigrant admissions. Legislation has extended the provisions relating to the second and third groups to September 30, 2000. 


Eligibility for special immigrant status requires religious workers to have: (1) been a member of a religious denomination having a bona fide nonprofit, religious organization in the United States; and (2) to have been carrying on religious work continuously, either abroad or in the United States, for at least two years immediately preceding the filing of the application. The religious worker must be coming to the United States solely for the purpose of: (a) acting as a minister; (b) working in a professional capacity in a religious vocation or occupation for a religious organization and at the organization's request; or (c) working in a religious vocation or occupation for a religious organization or an affiliated organization. The specific meanings of the terms of these provisions are set out below.

Many religious workers who might eventually qualify for special immigrant status arrive in the U.S. as R-1 nonimmigrant religious workers; others arrive in nonimmigrant student (F-1) status.

1. INS Regulations Defining the Relevant Terms 

a. A "bona fide nonprofit religious organization" is an organization exempt from taxation as described in the Internal Revenue Code of 1986. An organization that has never sought an exemption under the tax code may still be deemed a bona fide nonprofit religious organization if it can satisfy the INS that it would be eligible if it had applied for tax-exempt status. 

b. A "bona fide organization which is affiliated with the religious denomination" is an organization closely associated with a religious denomination. The organization must meet the same tax-exempt standard mentioned above to satisfy the definition. Examples include: the Holy Orthodox Church of North America, which is affiliated with the True Orthodox Church of Greece and the First United Methodist Church, located in a city in Massachusetts, which is affiliated with the United Methodist Church of North America.

c. The term "minister" refers to an individual duly authorized by a religious denomination to conduct religious worship and perform other duties usually performed by the clergy of that religion. There must be a reasonable connection between the activities performed and the religious calling of the minister. The term does not include lay preachers not authorized to perform such duties. The term includes Buddhist lamas and monks, Christian Science practitioners and nurses, Islamic mullahs, and Hindu priests.

d. The term "professional capacity" means an activity in a religious vocation or occupation for which the minimum of a United States-obtained baccalaureate degree, or a foreign educational equivalent degree, is required. For example, a choir director and organist in a "mainline" church will be required to have a bachelor's degree in music. A music director will only be accepted as a "religious worker" if certain conditions pertain to the specific position. 

e. 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 formal or informal code of doctrine and discipline, religious services and ceremonies, established place of religious worship, religious congregations, or some comparable indication of a bona fide religious exemption from taxation under the Internal Revenue Code of 1986. A "religious occupation" relates to a traditional religious function. Examples of individuals in religious occupations include liturgical workers, religious instructors, religious counselors, cantors, catechists, workers in religious hospitals or religious health care facilities, missionaries, religious translators, religious broadcasters, or producers of religious TV or radio programs. Examples from less traditional religious occupations include a women's evangelist, youth outreach worker, a business monk in the Buddhist tradition, and a Buddhist religious artist. This group does not include lesser-level ancillary support personnel such as janitors, maintenance workers, clerks, fund raisers, or persons solely involved in the solicitation of donations. 

f. A "religious vocation" means a calling to religious life evidenced by the demonstration of commitment to practice in the religious denomination, such as the taking of vows. Examples of individuals with a religious vocation include nuns, monks, religious brothers and sisters, and in one case known to the writer, a Zen devotee.



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