EB-4 Special Immigrant Religious Workers Green Card

B-1 Visa The EB-4 immigrant visa category for Ministers and non-ministers in religious vocations and occupations may immigrate to or adjust status in the U.S. for the purpose of performing religious work in a full-time compensated position.

The special immigrant religious worker category is one of several employment-based fourth-preference (EB-4) visa classifications.

Sunset Date for Non-Minister Religious Workers

On Dec. 20, 2019, the president signed into law Public Law 116-94, extending the EB-4 non-minister special immigrant religious worker program through September 30, 2020. The law allows these workers to immigrate or adjust to permanent resident by that date. Non-minister special immigrant religious workers include those within a religious vocation or occupation engaged in either a professional or non-professional capacity.  This date on which the program will end also applies to accompanying spouses and children of these non-minister special immigrant religious workers.

Special Immigrants entering the U.S. solely for the purpose of carrying on the vocation of a minister, and their accompanying spouses and children, are not affected by this date.

The common process for obtaining an EB-4 green card is composed of two phases: (1) the visa petition and (2) the application for permanent residence.

The Visa Petition

The purpose of the visa petition is to prove to USCIS that the foreign national qualifies as a special immigrant religious worker.

To qualify as a special immigrant religious worker, the foreign national must:

  • Have been a member of a religious denomination that has a bona fide non-profit religious organization in the United States for at least 2 years immediately before the filing of a petition for this status with USCIS.
  • Seek to enter the United States to work in a full time, compensated position in one of the following occupations:
    • Solely as a minister of that religious denomination;
    • A religious vocation either in a professional or nonprofessional capacity; or
    • A religious occupation either in a professional or nonprofessional capacity.
  • Be coming to work for either:
    • A bona fide non-profit religious organization in the United States; or
    • A bona fide organization that is affiliated with the religious denomination in the United States.
  • Have been working in one of the positions described above after the age of 14, either abroad or in the United States, continuously for at least 2 years immediately before the filing of a petition with USCIS. The prior religious work need not correspond precisely to the type of work to be performed. A break in the continuity of the work during the preceding two years will not affect eligibility so long as:
    • The foreign national 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 foreign national must have been a member of the petitioner’s denomination throughout the 2 years of qualifying employment.

Note: Full time work is an average of 35 hours per week. Compensated may mean salaried or unsalaried.

A U.S. employer, or the worker on his or her own behalf, must file Form I-360, Petition for Amerasian, Widow(er), or Special Immigrant, to request special immigrant religious worker classification. Both the employing non-profit religious organization and the religious worker must satisfy the requirements listed below. If a petitioner believes that one of these requirements substantially burdens the organization’s exercise of religion, it may seek an exemption under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). A written request for the exemption should accompany the initial filing, and it must explain how the provision:

  • Requires participation in an activity prohibited by a sincerely held religious belief; or
  • Prevents participation in conduct motivated by a sincerely held religious belief.

The petitioner must support the request with relevant documentation. USCIS will decide exemption requests on a case-by-case basis, and notes that the petitioner bears the burden of showing that it qualifies for a RFRA exemption.

By the time the visa petition is filed, the foreign national must decide whether he/she will apply for permanent residence here in the United States or at a U.S. consulate or embassy abroad.

Application for Lawful Permanent Residence

Presuming there is no backlog for an immigrant visa for the foreign national’s country of chargeability and preference category as determined by the labor certification filing date or the filing of the visa petition (i.e., priority date), if the foreign national is in the United States on a temporary nonimmigrant visa, or if he or she otherwise qualifies by regulation, the foreign national and his or her family may be eligible to apply for adjustment of status to lawful permanent resident with the regional service center of USCIS. If the foreign national is not in the United States, or does not qualify for adjustment of status, then the foreign national and his or her family must apply for immigrant visas at the appropriate U.S. consulate in his or her home country or country of residence. If permanent residence is applied for in the United States, it is called “adjustment of status” processing. If applied for outside the United States, it is called applying for an immigrant visa.” The result of either is the same: permanent residence.

As part of the ADJUSTMENT OF STATUS Application process, a foreign national may also apply for an employment authorization document (EAD) and advance parole (AP). A foreign national is not required to apply for an EAD or AP at the time he/she files his/her ADJUSTMENT OF STATUS Application or while his/her ADJUSTMENT OF STATUS Application is pending. It can take U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS, legacy Immigration and Naturalization Service) several months to approve a foreign national’s ADJUSTMENT OF STATUS Application. If a foreign national’s circumstances change during that time period, having the approved EAD and AP available will provide maximum flexibility even if for now a foreign national plan to continue to maintain his/her nonimmigrant status (such as H-1B, L-1, or O-1 status).

What is an EAD?

A foreign national can obtain an EAD card by filing an EAD Application at the same time he/she files his/her ADJUSTMENT OF STATUS Application, or after the ADJUSTMENT OF STATUS Application is filed. Once approved, the EAD card allows its holder to work for any employer while the card is valid. By contrast, a foreign national’s nonimmigrant status (H-1B, O-1, L-1, etc.) allow him/her to work only for the employer who filed the nonimmigrant petition. Once a foreign national has an EAD in hand, he/she may legally work for any employer (but remember that even with an EAD, a foreign national must have the intent to work for the sponsoring employer, in case of employment-based permanent residence, at the time his/her ADJUSTMENT OF STATUS Application is approved). EADs are valid for up to one year at a time. Spouses and dependent children may also obtain EADs, if desired.

What is Advance Parole?

A foreign national can obtain AP by filing an AP Application at the same time he/she files his/her ADJUSTMENT OF STATUS Application, or after the ADJUSTMENT OF STATUS Application is filed. Once approved, AP allows a foreign national to leave the United States and re-enter without having a valid nonimmigrant visa stamp in his/her passport. Unless a foreign national is maintaining H-1B or L-1 status, after his/her ADJUSTMENT OF STATUS Application is filed, a foreign national must obtain AP before leaving the United States. For example, if a foreign national has O-1 status and he/she files an ADJUSTMENT OF STATUS Application and then later a he/she leaves the United States without AP, his/her ADJUSTMENT OF STATUS Application will be considered by USCIS to have been “abandoned” and will be denied. This would cause great delay and expense because it could take weeks or months to get a foreign national back to the United States in new O-1 status, and then a new ADJUSTMENT OF STATUS Application package would have to be filed all over again. Traveling with AP prevents such problems from occurring. AP is valid for multiple entries during the validity of the document.

At the lawful permanent residence application stage, the USCIS (or consular office) will ask whether the foreign national has: (1) been a member of the Communist Party, terrorist groups, or similar organizations; (2) been arrested or convicted of any crimes; (3) ever received public assistance, (4) lied to obtain a visa, (5) worked in the United States without permission, or (6) overstayed his/her legal status, etc. We will go into more detail about these factors later.

In general, employment-based and family-based adjustment of status cases are subject to interviews with the local USCIS district office. Individuals who undergo consular processing of employment-based or family-based cases are also required to attend an interview.

At the end of this step, the foreign national will be granted permanent residence and issued a “green card.”