Booming Churches, Barred Pastors: How U.S. Visa Policies Thwart Hiring Ministers
Immigration officials balked at renewing the religious worker visa for Daniel Carrillo. They doubted that his sponsoring church had sufficient funds to pay him.
In 2011, the Toronto native moved to San Antonio to help plant a church for the Spanish-speaking Nazarene congregation he had pastored for six years in Kentucky. After serving the new English-speaking congregation for two months, Carillo learned that immigration officials had refused to renew his R-1 (religious worker) visa for another 30 months. They told him he must leave the country within 15 days.
With the help of World Relief immigration attorney Kedri Metzger, Carrillo successfully reapplied for an R-1 visa and moved back to San Antonio in October 2012 with his Honduran-born wife, Carolina, and their 7-year-old son, Joshua. This time, Carillo's visa affirms that he will be paid from the deeper pockets of the Nazarene district, rather than New Vision Community Church, the newly planted San Antonio congregation.
"We were doing everything to the letter of the law," says Carrillo, 34. "We want to make sure churches understand there are a lot of ministers brought in from the outside who are in the same predicament as us, sacrificing so much to work for the Lord."
Whatever happens in Congress with immigration reform this year, it won't solve the problems religious workers face in getting R-1 visas. Immigrant pastors and other church workers often are caught in a byzantine system that is inhospitable to evangelicals, even when they have complied with the necessary regulations. Ensuring that a religious worker has enough pay is just one of many issues that can trip up an immigrant who wants to pastor a church.
Meanwhile, the Carrillos, who met while attending a Canadian Christian college, are trying to survive on the $2,000 a month Daniel makes as New Vision Community Church's worship pastor. Under the R-1 visa, he is restricted to that role. He is prohibited from seeking a side job to supplement his income. Carolina is in the U.S. on an R-2 visa, designed for spouses of immigrant religious workers. She is not allowed to hold any paying job—secular or religious—even though she is a licensed Church of the Nazarene minister. She volunteers at New Vision as its evangelism pastor.
"Churches need to know it's serious business to bring somebody to work here," Carolina says. "It's also a sacrifice for both parties."
The Carrillos are trying to save $5,000 in fees Daniel will need to obtain legal U.S. citizenship. His R-1 visa is valid through March 2015, but there is no guarantee that he will then be granted residency status.
World Relief's Metzger has specialized in religious worker visa cases since 2007. She says that the Catholic Church with its uniform, hierarchal institutional structure has a much easier time adhering to the U.S. government's R-1 visa standards.
"They really weren't designed for the plethora of Protestant denominations and all their nuanced differences," says Metzger, who is based in Baltimore. "In the evangelical world there aren't crisp, clear lines of division. There is a lot of commonality and crossover, especially in ethnic language churches."