Will the sunset provisions be extended again?

The Comboni Missionary Sisters, a client of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc., is a Catholic religious order based in Richmond, Virginia, whose members minister to African and Hispanic immigrants and advocate for social justice nationally and internationally.

The Comboni sisters live their vocation through the vows of chastity, poverty and obedience within the context of community life. Sisters come from 34 countries, are present on four continents and serve in 35 countries. CLINIC has helped a few sisters from Italy come to the United States in R-1 status and later obtain permanent residence so they may continue their ministry. Sister Maria Teresa was born in Italy and has served her religious order since 1977, serving in mass communication, youth missionary animation and vocation promotion in Europe and Africa. She came to serve the Comboni Sisters in the U.S. in R-1 status in 2013. Sister Maria Teresa has been involved in faith formation and has particularly served the African-American community through this program. She is also cooperating with other Catholic religious groups to advocate against human trafficking and to promote human dignity.

The Comboni Missionary Sisters and countless other religious organizations have been able to further their mission and extend their charitable work through reliance on foreign religious workers and the R-1 visa program. But they may not be able to continue to do so unless Congress acts before Sept. 30 to renew the program. The uncertainty in the future of the religious worker visa program poses serious difficulties for organizations who rely on bringing in foreign workers to counter the aging of their U.S. citizen staff.

The special immigrant non-minister religious worker visa provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act include time limits known as “sunset provisions,” which were initially supposed to be extended by Congressional action every three years. In September 2015 the sunset provisions were extended until Dec. 11, 2015. On Dec. 18, 2015, President Obama signed the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2016, which extended the special immigrant non-minister religious worker program until Sep. 30, 2016.

The religious workers visa program was created in 1990, when Congress amended the Immigration and Nationality Act to create a special status for religious workers in both minister and non-minister categories[i]. Non-minister special immigrant religious workers include those within a religious vocation or occupation who are engaged in either a professional or non- professional capacity. The minister category includes people who are duly authorized by their religious denominations and are fully trained according to the denomination’s standards to conduct religious worship and other duties usually performed by the clergy. Religious workers in all three categories may immigrate to or adjust status in the United States for the purpose of performing religious work in a full-time compensated position. Only 5,000 religious workers per year may be issued a special immigrant non-minister religious worker visa. The limit on the number of visas is codified by Congress[ii].

Kate Adams is a staff Religious Immigration Services attorney with CLINIC. Ashley Feasley is the former Advocacy director at CLINIC.

This article was originally published Sept. 21, 2016, online in the American Immigration Lawyers Association InfoNet Research Library. The authors’ views do not necessarily represent the views of AILA nor do they constitute legal advice or representation.


[i] Immigration Act of 1990; public Law 101-649 (Nov. 29, 1990)

[ii] It does not apply to religious workers coming to the United States as ministers. 

Source: Catholic Charities