Churches and denominations struggle to determine the best way to partner with immigrants in their communities, especially those who do not have lawful immigration status. News commentary, anecdotal stories, and individual state laws related to foreign citizens all add to the confusion of an already complex and broken immigration system.
Despite the controversy and complexity surrounding the immigration issue, immigrants are transforming the church in the United States.
According to research by Todd Johnson at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, immigrant congregations are growing faster than any other segment of evangelical churches, and many evangelical denominations report that their fastest growth (and sometimes their only growth) is coming from immigrant communities. For evangelical Christians, immigration presents a great mission at our doorstep, allowing us to reach the nations without leaving our neighborhoods. World Relief is an organization that partners with churches and denominations to guide their policymaking, represent them in religious worker cases before the Department of Homeland Security, provide access to immigration consultation with immigration attorneys, and provide training and assistance in starting ministries alongside the immigrant community.
Below is a discussion of the most frequently asked questions World Relief receives from church leaders.
Can the denomination ordain or credential undocumented immigrants?
The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA)1 is the federal law that sets out the guidelines for foreign nationals in the United States. INA governs which foreign nationals can enter the United States and what activities each individual can participate in while he/she is visiting or residing in the United States.
Currently, INA does not prohibit foreign nationals— either those with lawful immigration status or those without—from, for instance, owning property, opening a bank account, volunteering time or services, obtaining a loan, or bringing a civil lawsuit. Additionally, there is no prohibition against ordination or other denominational credentialing of undocumented individuals.
Do I have an obligation to report undocumented immigrants?
INA also does not prohibit association with those who do not have lawful immigration status, nor does it require citizens of the United States or others to report the presence of an individual without lawful immigration status. Churches are free to minister and serve this population. They are able to provide them with emergency services and access to church programs. All immigrants, regardless of status, are able to receive assistance or care from non-governmental agencies, such as food pantries, shelters, free medical clinics, emergency centers, and the courts. For example, if a woman without legal immigration status is a victim of domestic violence, she would have access to a domestic violence shelter and an order of protection from the court.
Can we employ an undocumented individual as a pastor in our church?
INA specifically prohibits employers from knowingly hiring employees who are not authorized to work in the United States. Employers who do so may be sanctioned (fined) or, in extreme cases, face criminal consequences. Criminal consequences are reserved for serious repeat offenders.
Do we have to verify the immigration status of church volunteers?
An employee is an individual who provides services or labor for an employer in exchange for wages or other remuneration. This does not include volunteers who do work without any expectation of compensation. United States citizens and those with green cards are automatically allowed to work inside the United States. Other individuals must get permission from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Reimbursement is not considered a wage or other remuneration. Reimbursement is the payment of the individual’s actual monetary expenses. These are his/her out-of-pocket expenses, such as travel costs to an event, money spent on photocopying on behalf of the church, or food costs while traveling or from hosting an event.
What do we need to know if we have a pastor with an R-1 religious worker visa on staff?
R-1 visa holders must comply with the rules of their visas, or they risk losing their immigration status. The most common visa violations are:
• beginning employment with a different church or ministry, even within the same district, without a new R-1 petition being filed and approved;
• working a second job;
• terminating employment or hours falling below twenty hours a week;
• failure to apply for a timely extension of R-1 status.
It is important that a church or district contact World Relief or another immigration attorney who specializes in employment issues before hiring a foreign national or filing any paperwork with USCIS. Mistakes are often irreversible and have long-term consequences for the foreign national pastor or religious worker.
Note about Individual State Laws
Laws are being proposed or passed in states like Arizona and Alabama that attempt to prevent certain transactions with undocumented individuals. The Supreme Court struck down most of the provisions of the Arizona law, and other state laws are also being challenged in the courts. Many of the proposed state laws provide exception for religious leaders and churches. However, the ultimate outcome of these state laws is not fully known at this time.
KEDRI METZGER is senior attorney for Religious Worker Immigrant Legal Services at World Relief (worldrelief.org).