Immigration of Religious Workers: Background and Legislation
CRS Report for Congress
Received through the CRS W eb
Immigration o f Religious Workers:
Background and L egislation
Specialist i n Social Legislation
Domestic Social Policy Division
A p ro v i s i o n in immigration l aw that allows for t he admission of immigrants t o
perform religious work is scheduled to sunset o n S e p t e m ber 30, 2003. Although t he
provision has a broad b ase o f s upport, some have ex pressed concern t hat t he provision
is vulnerable t o fraud. The foreign religious worker m u s t be a m ember o f a religious
denomination t hat h as a bona fide nonprofit, religious organiz ation i n t he United S tates,
and m ust h ave b een i n t h e rel i gi ous vocat i on, professional work, or other religious work
continuously for at l east 2 years. Bills (H.R. 215 2 / S . 1 5 80) to ex tend the religious
worker provision through S eptember 30, 2008, have been introduced in both chambers.
The House passed H.R. 2152 on Septem ber 17, 2003. This report will be updated as
legi slative activity warrants.
Permanent l egal immigration t o t he United S tates i s regulat ed by a s et of numerical
limits and s ys tems of preference cat egories delineat ed in the Immigration and Nationality
Act (INA), and employment-based immigration comprises one of the m ajor groups of the
preference c a t e g o r y s ys t em s . 1 Aliens who come t o t he United S tates t hrough t he
permanent l egal immigration cat egories are commonly known as l egal permanent
resi dent s (LP R s ). The fourt h cat egory o f t he em pl oym ent -based preference syst em i s
known as “special immigrants,” and the l argest number o f s pecial immigrants are
ministers of religion and religious workers. 2 Religious workers are treat ed separat e ly
from ministers of religion and are limited t o 5,000 immigrants annually. Accompanyi ng
1 T he l argest preference gr ouping is family-based immi gr ation. Other groupings i nclude diversity
and humanit arian a dmissions. For more information, see CRS Report RS20916, Immigration and
2 Ot her “special immi gr ants” i nclude certain employees of the U.S. government a broad, Panama
Canal employees, r etired employees of international organizations, certain aliens who served i n
the U.S. armed forces, and certain aliens declared a ward of a j uvenile court. INA §101(a)(27).
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
spouses and minor children o f ministers of religion and religious workers are included as
speci al immigrants.
Prior t o t he Immigrati o n A c t of 1990 (P.L. 101-649), ministers of religion were
admitted t o t h e U n ited S tates without numerical limits, and there was no separate
provision for religious workers. Religious workers immigrated t hrough one of the m ore
gen e ral cat egories of numerically-limited, em ployment-bas ed immigration t hat were i n
effect at that time. T he Immigration Act of 1990 amended t he INA t o redefine t he special
immigrant cat egory t o i nclude ministers of religion and religious workers, but contai ned
a “sunset”of t he provision for religious workers o n S eptember 30, 1994. It was
subsequently ex tended s evera l t i m es , m ost recently through S eptember 30, 2003. 3 The
com m onl y referred t o as t he R v i s a.4
Rel i gi ous Wor ker Defi ni ti ons
Defining what constitutes religious work is daunting given the t heological diversity
of religions, denominations, and faith traditi ons. The education, training, and ordination
requirements for ministers o f religion and religious workers vary greatly by religious
group. Under t he special immigrant provisions, t he INA d efines ministers of religion and
religious workers as follows:
(C) an i mmi gr ant, and t he immi gr ant ’ s s pouse and children i f accompanyi ng or
followi ng to j oin the i mmi gr ant, who —
(i) f or at least 2 years i mmediately precedin g t h e t i me of application f or
admission, has been a member of a religious denomination having a bona fide
nonprofit, religious organization i n t he United States;
(ii) seeks t o enter the United States —
(I) s olely f or the purpose of carrying on t he vocation of a mi nister of that
(II) before October 1, 2003, in order t o work f or the orga n i z a t i o n a t t he
request of t h e organization i n a professional capacity in a r eligious vocation or
( III) b e f o r e Oc t obe r 1 , 2003, i n or de r t o wor k f or t he or ga ni za t i on ( or a
bona fide organization which is affiliated with the r eligious denomination a n d i s
exempt from t axation as an organization described in Section 501(c)(3) of t he Internal
Reve nue Code of 1986) at the r equest of the organization i n a religi o u s vo c a tion or
(iii) has been carrying on such a vocation, professional work, or other work5
continuously for at l east t he 2-year period described i n clause ( i);
3 Immi gr ation and Nationality T echnical Corrections Act of 1994 (P.L. 103-416), t he Religious
Workers Act of 1997 (P.L. 105-54), a nd the Religious Workers Act of 2000 (P.L. 106-409).
4 Religious workers on t he nonimmi gr ant R vi sas may be admitted f or up to 5 years.
5 INA §101(a)(27)(C); 8 U.S.C. 1101(a)(27)(C).
The regulations further define religious occupation as “an activity which rel at es to
a t raditional religious function.”6 The nonimmigrant R visa cat egory of religious workers
holds to the s ame d efinitions; al i e n s o n R v isas are not, however, h eld t o t he 2-year
ex perience requirement. R eligious worker s are not subject to the l abor certification
requirements t hat m any other em ployment-bas ed immigrants m ust m eet .7
The INA is silent on what constitutes a religious denomination, but the regulations
offer t he following definition:
Religious denomination means a religious gr oup or communi t y o f believe rs havi ng
some form of ecclesiastical government, a creed or statement of f aith, s ome f orm of
worship, a f orma l or i nforma l c ode of doctrine and discipline, religious services and
ceremonies, established places of religious worship, religious congregations, or
comparable indica of a bona fide religious denomination. For t he purposes of this
definition, an inter d e n ominational r eligious organization which is exempt from
ta xation pursuant t o §501(c)(3) of t he Internal Reve nue Code will be treated as a8
The U.S. C itizenship and Immigration S ervices Bureau in the Department of
Homeland Security (DHS) i s t he lead agency for immigrant admissions.9
Tr ends i n Admi ssi ons
In t he wider sweep of legal immigration t o t he United S tates, religious workers
represent a tiny fraction o f t he annual flow — 0 .3% of the 1,063,732 immigrants i n
FY2002. While the number o f nonimmigrant R v isas issued since FY1992 (first year the
category was available) ex ceeds t hat o f t he pe rmanent admissions, i t likewise constitutes
a s mall portion of all nonimmigrants admitted. The i s s u ances of R visas has m oved
steadily upward, but the l evels o f admission fo r p ermanent religious workers h as varied
since FY1992 (Fi gure 1 ).
Most religious workers who become LP Rs are not arriving from abroad; rather they
are adjusting s tatus after they have lived in the United S tates. In FY2002, only 389 of the
3,127 religious workers and their families arrived from abroad, while 87.6% adjusted to
LP R s tatus as religious workers i n t he United S tates. It is likel y t hat m ost of t hose who
adj u st ed st at us had ent ered on R v i s as as t em porary rel i gi ous workers.
6 The r egulations elaborate: “(E) xamples i nclude but are not limited t o liturgical wo r ke r s ,
religious instructors, religious counselors, cantors, catechists, workers in religious hospitals or
religious health care f acilities, mi ssionaries, r eligious translators, or religious broadcasters. T he
gr oup does not include j a nitors, maintenance workers, c l e r ks , f und raisers, or persons solely
involved in the s olicitation of donations.” 8 C.F.R. §204.5(m)(2).
7 Labor certification provi sions are aimed at ensu ring that f o r e i gn w orkers do not displace or
a dve rsely a ffect working c onditions of U.S. workers. For a full discussion, see: CRS Rep o r t
RS21520, Labor Ce rtification f or Permanent Immi grant Admi ssions ,byRuthEllenWasem.
8 8 C.F.R. §204.5(m)(2). For a discussion of the t ax exempt status, s ee: CRS Report RL31545,
Congressional Protection of Religious Liberty , by Louis Fisher, p. 47-48.
9 Ot her agencies with primary r esponsibility for i mmi gr ation f unctions are t he Bureau of Customs
and Border Protection and the Bureau of Immi gr ation a nd Customs Enforcement, both i n DHS,
and t he Bureau of Consular Affairs i n t he Departme nt of State.
Figure 1 . Temporary a nd Permanent Admission
of Foreign Religious W orkers
Pe rmanent Temporary
1992 1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002
So urce: CRS presen tatio n o f d ata from the Report o f the Visa Office, Bu reau of Consular Affairs, an d
th e Statistical Yearbook of th e former Immigratio n and Natu ralizatio n Service. Data in cludes foreign
wo r ker s a n d acco mp an yin g f a mily me mb er s.
Bills (H .R. 2152/S. 1580) to ex tend the religious worker provision through
September 30, 2008, have been introduced in both chambers. Congressman Barney Frank
introduced H.R. 2152 on May 19, 2003. The House J udiciary C ommittee o rdered H.R.
2003. Senate Committee on t he J udiciary C hairman Orrin Hatch introduced a b ill similar
to H.R. 2152, the R eligious W o rker Act o f 2003 (S. 1580), o n S eptember 3, 2003.
Although t he ex tension o f t he religious wo rker provision has a broad b ase o f s upport,
efforts t o m ake i t a permanent immigration category h ave not s u cceeded. S ome h ave
criticized the religious worker provision as vulnerable to fraud. A few have expressed
fear that it may be an avenue for religious ex tremists to enter t he United S tates. Others,
however, point out that the INA has p rovisions to gu ard against visa fraud and t o ex clude
from admission ali e n s w h o m ay threaten public safety or national s ecurity, and who
commit fraud to enter t he United S tates.10
10 For a full discussion of the gr ounds of i n admissibility, see CRS Report RL31215, Vi sa
Issuances: Policy, Issues, and Legislation ,byRuthEllenWasem.