Jump to Navigation


President Bush Signs Law Extending Non-Minister Religious Worker Visa Program

Immigration Law Update

October 14, 2008

On October 10, 2008, President Bush signed into law S.3606, which extends the Special Immigrant Non-Minister Religious Worker Visa Program until March 6, 2009. The legislation, which was introduced by Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), was passed by the Senate on September 26th and by the House of Representatives the next day on a voice vote. The existing law authorizing the program expired on September 30, 2008.

The Religious Worker Visa Program is authorized by Section 203(b)(4) of the Immigration and Naturalization Act (INA). The law allows for the issuance of up to 5,000 Special Immigrant visas a year, which religious organizations can use to sponsor eligible foreign nationals to come to the United States and perform various services provided by eligible religious groups. The INA treats religious workers, such as nuns and lay missionaries, separately from ministers of religion. Ministers of religion include ministers, pastors, priests, rabbis, imams, and others who are authorized by a recognized religious denomination to conduct religious worship and perform other duties usually performed by members of the clergy.

As explained in a press release from Hatch’s office announcing the bill’s passage in the Senate, the Non-Minister Religious Worker Program enables guest religious workers, who are not ministers, to “care for and minister to the sick, aged and dying. They work with our adolescents and young adults. They counsel individuals and families that are in crisis or suffering trauma. They assist religious leaders in conducting worship services and help refugees and immigrants adjust to a new way of life.”

In order to participate in the Non-Minister Religious Worker Visa Program, the worker must:

(1) have been a member of a bona-fide nonprofit, tax-exempted religious organization or affiliation in the U.S;

(2) have been employed with the denomination or organization – either abroad or in the U.S. – continuously for two years before the application is filed; and

(3) be entering the U.S. solely for the purpose of working in a professional capacity in a religious vocation or occupation for a religious denomination or organization at the denomination’s or organization’s request. 

The special visa program, initially introduced by Hatch and enacted in 1990, has previously been extended four times. In addition to continuing the program, the new law contains measures to ensure that the program is not abused. Specifically, the legislation directs the Secretary of Homeland Security to promulgate regulations within 30 days of the bill’s passage “to eliminate or reduce fraud” in the program. The bill further requires the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Inspector General to submit to Congress by March 6, 2009 a report on the effectiveness of the mandated regulations.

The extension is endorsed by groups ranging from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints to the American Jewish Committee, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Association of Evangelicals and the United Methodist Church.