Religious Immigrant Help


The religious based immigration system is designed for people who want to come to the United States to work within an established religious denomination in a role that is associated with the traditional works of that church or denomination. Examples include, but are not limited to, priests, rabbis, catechists.

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Religious Immigrant Help


The religious based immigration system is designed for people who want to come to the United States to work within an established religious denomination in a role that is associated with the traditional works of that church or denomination. Examples include, but are not limited to, priests, rabbis, catechists.

Religious Worker Definitions

Get to know the following terms to help you understand which religious based immigration is right for you.

Ordained Minister

Ordained ministers are duly trained and authorized by their religious denomination to conduct religious worship and other duties to the standards of its clergy. The law does not specify what training must be, but it has to be common to all people who are clergy within that denomination.

Lifelong Vocation

A person in a religious vocation who has formally made a lifetime commitment through vows, investitures, ceremonies, or similar kinds of events to officially declare a religious way of life. The religious denomination must have a class of individuals whose lives are dedicated to religious practices and functions, as distinguished from the secular members of the religion. Examples of persons with a religious vocation include, but are not limited to, nuns, monks, and religious brothers and sisters.

Professional Work in a Religious Capacity

A professional working for a religious organization only qualifies for a religious worker visa if the duties performed relate to the traditional functions of the religion and require intimate knowledge of that religion. 

An immigration lawyer working for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee could not get a religious visa as a professional worker because immigration lawyers do not have to know anything about the Roman Catholic Church to do their job. It wouldn’t matter if that lawyer is a devout Roman Catholic or not. The same principle would apply to professionals such as accountants, janitors, or office managers working for a religious organization because they do not need intimate knowledge of that religion or denomination to perform their work.

However, a canon lawyer, one who works only with the laws of the Roman Catholic Church, would be different. Canon lawyers fulfill many functions which are essential to the church and must understand the teachings of the church to do their jobs.

A word of caution: you should not try to bypass regular business-based immigration with the easier religious based immigration just because you work for a religious institution. Before proceeding with any religious based immigration, you should consult an immigration attorney with expertise in religious based immigration.


A denomination is a set of shared practices. In order to qualify as a denomination there must be more than a business or corporate relationship. Specifically, Immigration looks for a common:

  • Recognized creed or statement of faith shared among the denomination’s members;
  • Form of worship;
  • Formal code of doctrine and discipline;
  • Religious services and ceremonies;
  • Established places of religious worship or religious congregations; or
  • Comparable indicia of a bona fide religious denomination.

Immigration Status

The legal way that you are present in the United States is called your status. For example, people who were born in the United States are United States citizens, while others may be lawful permanent residents, students or tourists. When you come to the United States using a visa, your immigration status depends on what kind of visa you used to enter the country.

Regardless of your entry method, you will need to get something called an I-94 card, which is a record of your arrival into the United States. You have to print this card yourself using the United States I-94 websiteIt will display your status and how long it is valid. Each time you enter the United States you need to go online and print a new I-94 card. Keep in mind, when your I-94 card expires, so does your status.


A visa is a document that states whether you are allowed to enter or visit a specific country for a specified period of time. The United States Department of State issues visas to people who are trying to enter the United States, but it is not a guarantee that you will be allowed to enter in even if you have one. You need a visa before you can board an airplane that will fly to the United States during your visa’s validity dates. However, your travel visa does not allow you to stay in the United States. It is permission only to try to cross the border or to enter the country. Once you are here, your immigration status is what matters. Your visa can expire and it does not mean that you are here unlawfully.

You cannot get a visa or renew a visa once you are in the United States. Again, a visa’s sole purpose is to allow you to come to the United States. So, if you are already here, you do not need a way to enter the country. It is really important to carefully review your visa before you come because once you are here, you cannot correct any mistakes on your visa. For example, if your name is misspelled, or the dates are wrong, or they list you as working for the wrong religious denomination, you could have a problem once you get to the United States.


The dates your visa is valid and the dates your status is valid are two different sets of dates! Your Visa outlines when you may enter the United States and your I-94 card outlines how long you have status in the United States. Keep track of both.

Special Topics

Immigration for Religious Workers

After reviewing the religious worker definitions above, browse the following topics related to immigration for religious workers. Some or all areas may apply to your personal situation. 

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Student Visas

If you want to come to the United States to study, you have to go to a school approved by the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP). This includes seminaries. After you are accepted by your school of choice, you will work closely with them throughout your immigration process. Learn More

Religious Worker Visas

A visa is something you will need before you come to the United States as a religious worker. There are three types of religious worker visas:

This visa is meant for someone coming temporarily to the United States as a religious worker. There are three kinds of R-1 Nonimmigrant Religious Workers: (1) ordained ministers, (2) those working in a professional capacity and (3) those working in a lifelong vocation. These three categories are discussed in the definitions section above. R-1 Nonimmigrant Religious Worker visas can include spouses and unmarried children (under the age of 21) on the same petition. Learn More

The Special Immigrant Religious Worker is for religious workers who plan to permanently immigrate to the United States. Just like the R-1, qualifying religious workers include: ordained ministers, those working in a professional capacity, or those working in a lifelong vocation. Special Immigrant Religious Workers can also include spouses and unmarried children (under the age of 21) on the same petition. Learn More

The Missionary visa allows people to temporarily come to the United States to perform good works associated with a faith-based group. The requirements for a Missionary visa are significantly different from those of the R-1Nonimmigrant and Special Immigrant Religious Workers. You will still need a religious sponsor, however, the qualifications of your work are more flexible. Learn More

Religious Green Card

If you are already in the United States through a Special Immigrant Religious Worker visa, you can adjust status to become a lawful permanent resident. We will discuss how to do this from within the U.S., though there is a separate procedure for those who will process their status abroad. Learn More


Becoming a United States citizen gives you many advantages over being a lawful permanent resident. Like everything else with immigration, to become a U.S. citizen there is a form to fill out and a fee to be paid. Ultimately, your best chance at success will be through the help of an honest, experienced lawyer. Learn More

Additional Resources

When you have to depend on your lawyer to help you navigate and understand your options, it is especially important to find someone trustworthy and competent.

Catholic Charities Milwaukee offers free programs to help refugees and immigrants understand American culture, prepare for citizenship, learn English, and more.

Some immigration applications require you to go to a biometrics appointment. Also known as an ASC (Application Support Center) appointment, the main purpose is for Immigration to take your picture and fingerprints for their records.