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The ABCs of Immigration Ė Religious Workers
by Greg Siskind and Amy Ballentine

There are three classes of religious workers - ministers, professionals working in a religious vocation, and other workers in religious vocations. There is a limit of 5,000 visas available annually to religious workers, and the applicant must have been working for the religious group for at least two years prior to making the application. This work may be done either in or out of the US. In most cases where the work is done in the US, the person has been in the US on an R-1 visa, the nonimmigrant visa given to religious workers.

Qualifying Religious Organization

The religious worker must work for a "bona fide, nonprofit, religious organization" or a "bona fide organization which is affiliated with the religious denomination." A bona fide, nonprofit, religious organization is described in INS regulations as one that would be tax exempt under the Internal Revenue Code. The organization does not need to have ever sought tax exempt status, but need only prove to the INS that it is eligible for such status. A bona fide organization which is affiliated with a religious denomination is one closely associated with the religious denomination. It must also be eligible to tax exempt status under the Internal Revenue Code.

A religious denomination is defined as 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 places or religious worship, religious congregations, or comparable indication of a bona fide religious denomination."

Qualifying Religious Occupations

As mentioned above, there are three types of religious workers, ministers, people working in a professional capacity in a religious occupation or vocation, and others working in a religious occupation or vocation.

Ministers are people authorized by the religion to conduct worship services and perform other functions. It does not include lay persons who participate in services but are not authorized to perform the duties of a minister. A professional religious position is one for which the minimum requirement is a baccalaureate degree. A religious occupation is one traditionally part of the work of the denomination. It does not include support staff such as clerks or maintenance workers. Typical examples would be missionaries, counselors and liturgical workers. A religious vocation is a calling to the religious life with a demonstrable commitment to that life such as taking vows. Typical in this category would be monks and nuns.

Filing the Petition

The petition is filed on Form I-360 with the appropriate regional service center. The petition must include evidence that the petitioner is a qualifying religious organization. This could be documentation or the organizationís tax exempt status or evidence that would be required to obtain tax exempt status. It must also include a letter from the petitioning organization.

This letter must confirm that the alien worked for the religious organization for the two years preceding filing. This must be work as a minister, professional in a religious occupation or vocation, or other worker in a religious occupation or vocation. It cannot be volunteer work. Nor can it have been sporadic paid work, it must be full time employment. If the two years were worked for a different organization than the one petitioning, both organizations must share a common religious doctrine.

If the alien is to work as a minister, the letter must that that the person is authorized to act as a minister, and must include a detailed list of the ministerial duties. The application must also include evidence that the alien is ordained or authorized to act as a minister, including a description of the ordaining process and evidence that the alien has gone through that process.

If the alien is to work as a professional, there must be evidence that the alien possesses a US bachelorís degree or its foreign equivalent. If the work is in a religious vocation or occupation, the application must include evidence that the alien is qualified for that work. Such evidence could be proof that the alien is a monk or nun, or that the position is traditional within the organization. If the alien is to work with an affiliated organization, the employer letter must show the affiliation, and the application must include evidence of the organizationís tax exempt status.

Finally, the application should include details about how the worker will be paid.

About The Author

Gregory Siskind has experience handling all aspects of immigration and nationality law and has represented numerous clients throughout the world. Mr. Siskind provides consultations to corporations and individuals on immigration law issues and handles cases before the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Department of State, the Department of Labor and other government agencies. Gregory Siskind is also committed to community service. He regularly provides free legal services to indigent immigration clients and speaks at community forums to offer information on immigration issues. After graduating magna cum laude from Vanderbilt University, Gregory Siskind went on to receive his law degree from the University of Chicago. For the past several years, he has been an active member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association and he currently serves as a member of the organization's Technology Committee. He is the current committee chair for the Nashville Bar Association's International Section. Greg is a member of the American Bar Association where he serves on the LPM Publishing Board as Marketing Vice Chairman and on the Council of the Law Practice Management Section. He is also a member of the Tennessee Bar Association, the Nashville Bar Association and the Memphis Bar Association. He serves on the board of the British American Business Association of Tennessee. And he serves on the Board of Directors of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and on the executive boards of the Jewish Family Service agencies in Nashville and Memphis, Tennessee. He recently was named one of the Top 40 executives under age 40 in his hometown of Memphis, Tennessee.

Greg regularly writes on the subject of immigration law. He has written several hundred articles on the subject and is also the author of the new book The J Visa Guidebook, published by Matthew Bender and Company, one of the nation's leading legal publishers. He is working on another book for Matthew Bender on entertainment and sports immigration.

Greg is also, in many ways, a pioneer in the use of the Internet in the legal profession. He was one of the first lawyers in the country (and the very first immigration lawyer) to set up a web site for his practice. And he was the first attorney in the world to distribute a firm newsletter via e-mail listserv. Mr. Siskind is the author of the American Bar Association's best selling book, The Lawyer's Guide to Marketing on the Internet. He has been interviewed and profiled in a number of leading publications and media including USA Today, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Lawyers Weekly, the ABA Journal, the National Law Journal, American Lawyer, Law Practice Management Magazine, National Public Radio's All Things Considered and the Washington Post. As one of the leading experts in the country on the use of the Internet in a legal practice, Greg speaks regularly at forums across the United States, Canada and Europe.

In his personal life, Greg is the husband of Audrey Siskind and the proud father of Eden Shoshana and Lily Jordana. He also enjoys collecting rare newspapers and running in marathons and triathlons. He can be reached by email at

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