Mark A Ivener, A Law Corporation

USCIS Proposes Revisions for Religious Worker Visa Classifications

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is proposing to amend existing regulations pertaining to special immigrant and nonimmigrant religious worker visa classifications. The proposed rule focuses on how the agency can best ensure the integrity of the religious worker program by eliminating opportunities for fraud in the program while, at the same time, streamlining the process for legitimate petitioners.

In 1999, USCIS noted, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported incidents of fraud in the religious worker program. The GAO found that fraud often involved false statements by petitioners about the length of time an applicant was a member of a religious organization, the qualifying work experience, and the position being filled. The GAO also noted problems with applicants making false statements about their individual qualifications and plans while in the U.S.

USCIS has since continued to assess the potential for fraud in the religious worker program. The agency’s Office of Fraud Detection and National Security (FDNS) found a 33 per cent rate of fraud in the program. The FDNS’s assessment also indicated patterns of potential fraud and weaknesses that created vulnerabilities for fraud to occur. Together with the GAO’s earlier report, the FDNS assessment showed a “justifiable and compelling need to address the issue,” USCIS said.

USCIS is proposing a variety of changes, including but not limited to requiring the filing of a petition in every instance (the requirement already exists for special immigrants and for organizations seeking to extend the stay or adjust status for nonimmigrant religious workers already in the U.S.). USCIS said this proposed requirement will allow the agency to verify the legitimacy of the petitioner and the job offer before the issuance of a visa or admission to the U.S. USCIS also would notify petitioners that the agency may conduct on-site inspections of any organization seeking to employ either a nonimmigrant or a special immigrant religious worker. Inspections would be “intended to increase deterrence and detection of fraudulent petitions and to increase the ability of the agency to monitor religious workers and ensure their lawful status in the U.S. is maintained.”

USCIS also is proposing to amend the standard initial period of stay for nonimmigrant religious workers from three years to one. In addition, every petition for an R-1 classification would be required to be initiated by a prospective or existing employer through the filing of a Form I-129 (Petition for Nonimmigrant Worker) with USCIS. The beneficiary (the religious worker) would no longer be able to obtain an R-1 visa at a U.S. consulate abroad or at a port-of-entry without prior approval of the I-129 by USCIS.

In addition, USCIS proposes to change certain related definitions. For example, USCIS proposes to expand its interpretation of prior work experience to include work that is not in the “exact same” position as the job offered. Also, USCIS proposes to expand the definition of “religious occupation” to focus on duties that “primarily, directly, and substantially relate[ ] to the religious beliefs or creed of the denomination.” Such a change, USCIS said, distinguishes between committed religious work and non-qualifying work that, while it may be incident to religious duties, cannot by itself warrant classification in the religious worker category.

See Press Release and Fact Sheet.

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About the Author

Mark A. Ivener, A Law Corporation, a nationally recognized law firm, has successfully assisted hundreds of clients in immigration matters.