Anderson Immigration Law enjoys serving the needs of missionaries through the benefits provided by a fairly unknown provision in immigration law known as INA § 319(b). This provision provides a wonderful solution to an immigration dilemma faced by countless missionaries who end up finding their spouse on the mission field.
The Common Situation
Many American missionaries initially leave for the mission field unmarried (I speak from personal experience here). However, they are soon enchanted by the exotic beauty of a Peruvian national (or other nationality I suppose), and settle in to do ministry with the new ministry advantage of a spouse who lives and breathes the culture.
If Missionary Matt and his foreign spouse desire to uproot and move back to the United States for good, then the process is fairly straight-forward. The US citizen will file an I-130 petition, and when the process is complete, his foreign spouse will immigrate and receive her green card.
However, what happens when the couple is not planning to move back to the United States? In many cases, they only want to return to the United States for a short period, to visit family or to raise more financial support.
If the missionary’s foreign spouse applies for a tourist visa, the consular official may count her marriage to a US citizen against her. The consular official will often work under the suspicion that she is seeking the tourist visa as a fast entry to the United States, in order to file for the green card once she arrives. This is called a presumption of immigrant intent (INA § 214b). This presumption is even more likely if the missionary and his wife lack evidence of ties to the foreign country, such as home ownership or a large bank account (not unusual in the case of a missionary).
Many missionaries try to solve this problem by filing the I-130 petition as if they were planning to settle in the United States, but planning to use the green card only to guarantee future entries into the United States. However, the green card exists for foreign nationals who plan to “permanently reside” in the United States, and border officials are very zealous about weeding out those that use it for other purposes. Unless the foreign spouse is returning to the United States in less than 6 months every time, he or she is almost guaranteed to face difficult questioning at the US border. And if the absences from the US are long enough and/or repeated enough, US border officials can even deny entry and take away the foreign spouse’s green card.
At this point, Missionary Matt’s foreign spouse is definitely envying Matt’s US citizenship, and with it the ability to enter and leave the United States whenever he wants. Who would have imagined that one of the great benefits of US citizenship is the right to leave the United States for as long as you want? But if she does get her green card, she still has to wait 3 years (while residing in the US!) before she can apply for US citizenship. 3 years away from their mission work may be an unacceptable option.
Enter the solution: INA § 319(b). Under INA § 319(b), a green card holder can bypass the 3 year wait and apply immediately for US citizenship, if he or she is married to a US citizen missionary regularly stationed abroad who is employed by a missions organization with a bona fide presence in the United States.
Through the use of this statutory provision, the foreign spouse can enter the United States in permanent resident status, and immediately file for US citizenship. In fact, they could even return to the mission field while they are waiting for their application to be approved, as long as they return for their citizenship interview and oath ceremony. Then once she becomes a US citizen, they can return to the mission field as career missionaries, never to worry about US entries again.
This provision of the law could be a huge benefit to many US missionaries if they only knew about it. Unfortunately, even the missionaries that do eventually discover it often do so only after many years of border incidents and expensive trips back to the United States to maintain permanent residence. If you know a US citizen missionary with a foreign spouse, consider sharing this information with them.