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.

The religious worker visa system "doesn't need to be overhauled," says World Relief's Kedri Metzger. "It just needs to be retooled in an evangelical church context."

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.

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"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.

Burdensome Regulations

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."

For example, if a Presbyterian minister from South Korea is offered a job at a nascent Nazarene Korean congregation in the United States, current immigration guidelines make it nearly impossible for him to enter on an R-1 visa. Under U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) rules, an applicant must be a member of the participating denomination for the past two years.

"Even if a denomination says we accept their ordination as ours, [USCIS] still sees it as a different religion," Metzger says. Subsequently, there can be lengthy delays for immigrant and ethnic churches trying to fill pulpits with pastors who know their language and culture.

That is problematic because for U.S. denominations launching church plants among immigrant populations, where they often see the most growth. Such congregations frequently must hire qualified pastors from outside the country.

Metzger says before the U.S. Immigration Service revamped the review and approval process for R-1 visas in 2008, religious workers had a much easier time moving to and staying in the United States. Too easy, in fact. Because of fraud, the government implemented regulations that are particularly burdensome for evangelical religious workers.

"It used to be a one-step process for a visa, just going to the embassy with a letter of invitation from the church," says Metzger, who, with two World Relief associates provides around 500 consultations a year and represents approximately 25 congregations and church-based nonprofits. "My applications now weigh between three and six pounds because so many documents are required."

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Between fiscal 2008 and 2012, the number of R-1 visas issued by the State Department dropped from 10,061 to 4,340. In the same period, R-2 visas for spouses or children of religious workers declined from 2,941 to 1,375.

Robert P. Webber, an immigration lawyer based in Edina, Minnesota, has represented various church plants, campus mission groups, and international student organizations. Before the rule change five years ago, Webber says, churches of different persuasions met no resistance in sponsoring someone on an R-1 visa.

"A guy might become a Christian through a Presbyterian church in China and then start attending a Baptist church while in graduate school in the United States," relates Webber, who handles 15 to 20 R-1 visa cases directly each year. "If the Baptist church wants to sponsor him to be a missionary to students at a nearby university, it would be above board. Now the government gives no consideration to the overlapping of tenets."

Convincing the Government

Regulations can be particularly cumbersome for independent churches. Webber is assisting the nondenominational Tabernacle Church in Norfolk, Virginia, which has been trying to obtain an R-1 visa for an Indonesian doctoral student since August 2012. Kathy Hardison, director of Global Friendship Ventures, wants to hire Kurnia Foe to supervise Global Friendship House, a Tabernacle Church-led ministry to nearby Old Dominion University.

"The guidelines for R-1 are antiquated," Hardison says. "Non-denominational churches don't fit."

In May, Foe graduated from Old Dominion University with a doctorate in electrical and computer engineering. Although Foe is a deacon at Tabernacle church and has earned a reputation for active involvement in campus ministry, the government mandates that he find a job in his practical training field within 90 days—or be sent back to his homeland with his wife and their three sons.

"We want to hire him full-time to keep building this ministry," Hardison says. "We can't pay him; that would be illegal. We're in limbo land. The paperwork has gone into a dark hole."

Ironically, part of the delay is because Tabernacle Church formed a separate 501(c)(3) nonprofit to raise funds to build a residence for 72 foreign students. The ministry wants Foe to staff that house, but immigration representatives have twice requested further evidence that Global Friendship House is indeed a religious organization and that Foe participates in ministry.

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Immigration officers have a great deal of discretion in rejecting R-1 visas. If they don't understand the inner workings of the evangelical world, they view many innocuous activities with suspicion. Every church that files an application gets an unannounced on-site inspection from an immigration officer. This step in the verification process can take months, Webber says. Some church plants geared toward immigrants meet in elementary schools. A government officer who visits the location on a weekday, when it is filled with students rather than worshipers, may decide the application is fake. If the church's address is listed as a small office in a strip mall, the investigator might arrive at the same conclusion.

Odds of success improve slightly with heft. If a denominational district, rather than a local congregation, files paperwork, it usually gives the immigrant pastor more options. Yet if ethnic ministry leaders rather than legal professionals fill out documents, it might constitute an unauthorized practice of law that puts both the applicant and the entire denomination at risk.

"If they make a mistake, the stakes are high," says Metzger. "It can permanently alter the life of an undocumented pastor."

Reform Timetable

The immigration reform bill before Congress doesn't explicitly address these religious worker visa issues, but Webber believes it should. He thinks organizations such as the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) should be prioritizing religious worker visas instead of engaging in broad reform efforts.

"Why not include some common-sense revisions to rules that apply to churches?" Webber asks. "If compassion is the theme of immigration reform, maybe current rules that are too technical for religious workers should be in play."

But Metzger says this isn't the right time to revise the R-1 visa; the massive effort to rectify the status of 11 million people living in the United States illegally is paramount, she says. Metzger hopes that immigration reform will create another visa option that would work better for some churches.

"For those churches that have undocumented pastors working, they will have the opportunity to rectify their situation and actually gain legal status," Metzger says. "So they won't need a religious worker visa."

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Rather than finding a legislative solution to the R-1 visa problem, Metzer believes, a well-positioned case in federal court could spur the needed changes within the USCIS administrative system.

"It doesn't need to be overhauled," Metzger says. "It just needs to be retooled in an evangelical church context."

Training Churches to Help

Immigration reform will also create new opportunities for churches to help people in their communities. A Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life report in May estimated that 83 percent of unauthorized immigrants are Christians, accounting for 9.2 million people.

While many churches are already reaching out in significant ways—allowing immigrant groups to use church buildings and starting language-specific congregations—churches will need to be even more involved once reform passes, says Galen Carey, NAE vice president of government relations.

"Immigrants will need help in understanding the [new] law," he says. "There will be a natural opportunity to meet a practical need and to form relationships that demonstrate the love of Christ."

"Our churches and communities have been blessed by immigrants, many of whom bring strong faith, entrepreneurial energy, and traditional family values that strengthen our future," Carey says.

World Relief is spearheading a drive to equip laypeople in congregations to establish legal immigration clinics once Congress has approved comprehensive immigration reform. Carey, who used to work for World Relief, says the work of establishing immigrant legal service centers in local congregations involves 15 denominations as well as several megachurches.

Besides attorneys, the only people authorized to offer legal services to immigrants are social or religious nonprofits that have been accredited by the Department of Justice through the Board of Immigration Appeals. One such group is the Immigration Service and Aid Center (ISAAC) in San Antonio. ISAAC, a ministry of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, is accredited by the government to provide weeklong training to church staff on basic immigration law.

ISAAC Director Jesus Romero told CT that a plague of untrained scammers, known as "notaries," offer shoddy legal information to unwary immigrants.

"They are taking money away from people," says Romero, a first-generation immigrant from Mexico. "At its worst, the sloppy paperwork can result in deportation."

With proper training, churches can help protect immigrants from opportunists and bad advice.

John W. Kennedy is a former news editor of Christianity Today.

[ This article is also available in español. ]

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