by Adam J. Kneeland
B-1 is a status most commonly a short-term status used by people visiting the US for business; however, it is also an option for applicants pursuing religious/missionary activities, including teaching at religious schools. Using the B-1 for religious instruction is often misunderstood; here are the basics of who qualifies and what is required.
B-1 Missionary Status
According to the Foreign Affairs Manual (FAM), the document CBP will primarily reference when reviewing your application, there are three types of applicants who are eligible for a B-1 visa for religious purposes:
- religious leaders visiting multiple places of worship and supported by offerings given at each meeting
- religious leaders switching pulpits with a US counterpart, supported by their home church; and
- a broader third category for missionary work, including religious instruction.
9 FAM 402.2-5(C)(1)(U)
The Law Offices of James D. Eiss has extensive experience with B-1 missionary applications for religious instruction.
What qualifies as religious instruction?
“Religious instruction” can mean teaching explicitly religious materials (scriptural studies, Sunday School, etc), but may also include more standard educational subjects (math, science, reading, etc) taught from a faith-based curriculum.
For example, many conservative Mennonite schools relate all subjects to the tenets of their religious beliefs. With faith incorporated into all subjects the curriculum cannot be separated from their religious beliefs, so even teaching math, science, language arts, etc. qualifies as religious instruction.
Because this teaching is less obviously religious in nature, however, it's critical that applicants at the border provide the right evidence to CBP officers to ensure their applications are fully understood and correctly processed.
Key supporting evidence
When applying for a B-1 visa as a teacher, it's important to provide confirmation that the instruction will be religious in nature. This includes a letter from the home church confirming the applicant's membership and denomination; even more critical is a letter from the receiving organization's pastor (or school board member, elder, etc.) confirming the faith requirements for teachers and the faith-based nature on the educational curriculum. Letters are usually sufficient to show that this is the requirement, but they must be specific and detailed about the religious nature of the instruction.
A B-1 missionary/instructor is a volunteer and cannot receive a salary, but they are allowed to receive monetary support to cover necessary expenses. The amount of monetary compensation should be considered carefully. Too large an amount may result in a denial because the officer believes an R-1 is more appropriate, being a status for longer-term employment. “Too large” is relative; an organization providing food and housing to the applicant should offer less cash than an organization offering only transportation.
In general, monetary support provided to teachers in B-1 status should be enough to cover reasonable anticipated expenses during their time at the receiving organization and no more. It may also be worth considering whether monetary support can be provided by the applicant's home church outside of the U.S.
Duration of B-1 status and travel during volunteer term
Applicants can be granted B-1 missionary status for one year at a time. CBP will sometimes limit applicants to 6 months, though specifying the anticipated term of volunteer service and citing the relevant regulations may help ensure a longer validity period. Extensions can be applied for at the border or, if the volunteer wishes to remain in the U.S., with an application to USCIS. Which method makes the most sense will vary depending on the individual situation.
If the volunteer leaves the U.S. in the middle of their volunteer term—to visit home for Christmas, for example—they will essentially need to reapply when they enter again. This means that in the worst case scenario they could be denied re-entry by CBP. Because officer discretion plays such a significant role in border crossings, presenting the same application materials is no guarantee of re-admission. If initially admitted for the full requested period (the full school year, e.g.), an applicant should carefully consider whether leaving in the middle of their term is worth the risk of difficulty upon re-entry.
Contact the Law Offices of James D. Eiss today to learn more about B-1 Missionary Status for religious instruction.