Have you ever wondered: is there an exception to the COVID-19 vaccine requirement mandated by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) for those undergoing the green card process?
In this blog post, we share with you how our office was able to obtain successful waivers of the COVID-19 vaccine requirement, information about what exceptions exist to the vaccine requirement, the criteria that must be proven to obtain a vaccine waiver, and the resulting victories we gained on behalf of our clients.
We also describe how we were able to accomplish vaccine waiver approvals, by presenting an abundance of documentary evidence to help these individuals prove their case.
An Overview: What is the COVID-19 Vaccination Requirement
In response to the rapid rise in Coronavirus cases, the U.S. government announced that starting October 1, 2021, those applying for permanent residency (a green card) within the United States, or an immigrant visa abroad, would be required to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 (one or two doses depending on the vaccine taken).
The Medical Examination Form I-693
As part of the green card process, applicants are required to complete a medical examination conducted by a civil surgeon on Form I-693, to establish that they are not inadmissible to the United States on public health grounds. The government made it a matter of policy as of October 1, 2021, to require all those subject to the medical examination requirement to complete the COVID-19 vaccination to prove their admissibility (and therefore) receive approval of their green cards.
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service announced that this policy would apply “prospectively to all Forms I-693 [medical examinations] signed by the civil surgeons” on or after October 1, 2021. The agency also took steps to revise Form I-693 and its instructions to include the new vaccination requirement.
Its policy guidance followed the recommendations of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) August 17, 2021, update to the Technical Instructions for Civil Surgeons. The CDC update requires applicants subject to the immigration medical examination to “complete the COVID-19 vaccine series [in addition to the other routinely required vaccines] and provide documentation of vaccination to the civil surgeon or panel physician in person before completion of the medical examination.”
Does the COVID-19 vaccination requirement also apply to those seeking immigrant visas at U.S. Embassies and Consulates abroad?
Yes. The government made clear that the COVID-19 vaccination requirement applies to those seeking to adjust their immigration status within the United States, as well as applicants applying for immigrant visas at U.S. Embassies and Consulates abroad. That is because complete vaccination is necessary for a medical examination conducted by a civil surgeon or physician abroad, as part of the green card admissibility process.
To demonstrate completion of the vaccination series, the government requires applicants to present their official vaccination records or copies of their medical charts showing that they have been vaccinated against COVID-19. The CDC stated in its guidance that “self-reported vaccine doses” are not accepted unless they are confirmed by a doctor or other medical professional with “written documentation.” The CDC also noted that the COVID-19 vaccines manufactured by Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, and Janssen (Johnson & Johnson) are all acceptable.
Are there exceptions to the COVID-19 vaccine requirement?
Yes. Two types of waivers of the immigrant vaccination requirement exist: “blank waivers” and waivers based on religious grounds.
As stated by USCIS:
“An applicant seeking adjustment of status in the United States, or an applicant seeking an immigrant visa at a U.S. consulate who is found inadmissible for not being vaccinated may be eligible for the following waivers:
- The applicant has, by the date of the decision on the visa or adjustment application, received vaccination against the vaccine-preventable disease(s) for which he or she had previously failed to present documentation; (also known as a “blanket waiver”)
- The civil surgeon or panel physician certifies that such vaccination would not be medically appropriate; or (also known as a “blanket waiver”)
- The requirement of such a vaccination would be contrary to the applicant’s religious beliefs or moral convictions (waiver based on religious grounds)”
USCIS grants “blanket waivers” if a health professional indicates that an applicant has received the required vaccinations or is unable to receive them for medical reasons. If USCIS grants “blanket waivers,” the applicant does not have to file a form or pay a fee.
Individuals may also apply for individual waivers based on religious beliefs or moral convictions by submitting Form I-601, Application for Waiver of Grounds of Inadmissibility with the appropriate fee of $930 and documentary evidence.
For the purposes of this blog post, we will be discussing the vaccine waiver on grounds of religious belief or moral conviction.
Overview: Waiver due to Religious Belief or Moral Conviction
A vaccine waiver may be granted at USCIS discretion where the applicant establishes that compliance with the COVID-19 vaccination requirement would be contrary to his or her religious beliefs or moral convictions. Unlike other waivers of medical grounds of inadmissibility, there is no requirement that CDC review a waiver based on grounds of religious belief.
Vaccine Waiver Application Process
When seeking a vaccine waiver based on religious belief, applicants must file the green card application as normal. Thereafter, upon review of the Form I-693 and the medical documentation, the officer will find that the applicant is missing the COVID-19 vaccine and that a “blanket waiver” is not available. The officer will then ask the applicant why the COVID-19 vaccine is missing. In most circumstances, officers will request clarification from the applicant during the in-person green card interview or by sending a Request for Evidence (RFE) by mail.
Most commonly, the green card applicant will attend the in-person green card interview, where they will notify the officer that they oppose the COVID-19 vaccine based on their sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions.
Thereafter, the immigration officer will issue a Request for Evidence (RFE) and/or Notice of Intent to Deny (NOID) based on the deficiency, because refusal to take the missing vaccine renders the applicant inadmissible absent the approval of a vaccine waiver.
The issuance of the RFE and/or NOID gives the applicant the opportunity to respond by filing the vaccine waiver application within the usual submission deadline of approximately 30-33 days (plus additional 60-calendar days based on USCIS COVID-19 flexibility policy).
Once the RFE or NOID is received, the applicant will respond to the RFE or NOID including the receipt notice of Form I-601, Application for Waiver of Grounds of Inadmissibility as evidence that the applicant has requested a waiver based on their sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions. Thereafter, the applicant will wait for USCIS to review the waiver application and render a decision. If the vaccine waiver is approved, the applicant’s green card will be issued.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Once the applicant has indicated to the immigration officer that he or she opposes the COVID-19 vaccine on religious grounds (either in response to the request for evidence or at the in-person interview), the officer should inform the applicant of the possibility of the waiver. The officer should explain the basic waiver requirements for a religious belief or moral conviction waiver, and issue an RFE requesting the waiver application.
Applicants must be aware that, a request for a waiver of the vaccination requirement requires an officer to consider whether the grant of the waiver is warranted as a matter of discretion.
USCIS finds that a favorable exercise of discretion is generally warranted if the applicant establishes that he or she objects to the vaccination requirement on account of religious beliefs or moral convictions.
Requirements to Prove Religious Belief or Moral Conviction
Now that you have understood the waiver process generally, let’s move on to what criteria you must prove to obtain a successful waiver based on religious belief or moral conviction.
The following three requirements must be proven through documentary evidence included with Form I-601, Application for Waiver of Grounds of Inadmissibility to obtain a successful COVID-19 vaccine waiver:
1. The applicant must be opposed to all vaccinations in any form
The applicant must demonstrate that he or she opposes vaccinations in all forms. This is a very important consideration. The applicant cannot “pick and choose,” by opposing only the COVID-19 vaccine, while consenting to other vaccinations.
According to USCIS, the fact that an applicant has received certain vaccinations in the past but not others is not automatic grounds for the denial of a waiver. Instead, the officer should consider the reasons provided for having received those vaccines.
For example, the applicant’s religious beliefs or moral convictions may have changed substantially since the date the particular (previous) vaccinations were administered, or the applicant is a child who may have already received certain vaccinations under routine medical practices. These examples do not limit the officer’s authority to consider all credible circumstances and accompanying evidence.
How is this criteria proven?
To meet this criteria, the applicant must provide a signed sworn declaration of their opposition to all vaccinations in all forms. If the applicant is only opposed to the COVID-19 vaccine but not others, the waiver application will not be successful.
In circumstances where the applicant has received other vaccinations in the past, the applicant must explain the circumstances that led to the change in his or her religious beliefs or moral convictions, citing credible sources explaining the reason the applicant is now contrary to vaccine.
2. The objection must be based on religious beliefs or moral convictions.
The second requirement is that the objection to vaccination be based on religious beliefs or moral convictions. USCIS has stated that for this criteria, the applicant’s religious beliefs must be balanced against the benefit to society as a whole, while being mindful that vaccinations offend certain individual’s religious beliefs.
This criterion is shown by presenting a detailed and strong personal statement which fully explains and describes how the applicant finds it impossible to align the action of taking vaccinations with his or her religious beliefs. It is necessary to include a thorough explanation about his or her religious beliefs, the reasoning behind their opposition to all and any form of the vaccine, and an explanation of other measures the applicant will take to prevent the spread of the disease to protect society.
3. The religious belief or moral conviction must be sincere.
The third and final criterion is to demonstrate that the applicant holds their religious belief sincerely and adheres to the belief in subjective good faith. This factor protects only those beliefs that are sincerely held by individuals, as a matter of conscience.
USCIS makes clear that, “Even if these beliefs accurately reflect the applicant’s ultimate conclusions about vaccinations, they must stem from religious or moral convictions, and must not have been framed in terms of a particular belief so as to gain the legal remedy desired, such as [a vaccine] waiver.”
Under federal law, sincerely held religious beliefs “include moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong which are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views.” 29 CFR § 1605.1.
The fact that no religious group holds such beliefs or the fact that the religious group to which an individual professes to belong may not accept such belief does not determine whether the belief is religious and is irrelevant. Therefore, the fact that the individual’s professed religious group does not subscribe to or is not in direct opposition to the vaccine, does not invalidate an individual’s claim.
It is also important to understand that the belief must stem from religious or moral convictions, meaning that they must not be grounded in personal belief, opinions, or philosophical foundations.
USCIS states that, “While an applicant may attribute his or her opposition to a particular religious belief or moral conviction that is inherently opposed to vaccinations, the focus of the waiver adjudication should be on whether that claimed belief or moral conviction is truly held, that is, whether it is applied consistently in the applicant’s life.
The applicant does not need to be a member of a recognized religion or attend a specific house of worship.”
Additionally, USCIS distinguishes between strong religious beliefs or moral convictions and mere preference not to take the vaccine. “Religious beliefs or moral convictions are generally defined by their ability to cause an adherent to categorically disregard self-interest in favor of religious or moral tenets. The applicant has the burden of establishing a strong objection to vaccinations that is based on religious beliefs or moral convictions, as opposed to a mere preference against vaccinations. “
To demonstrate that an applicant consistently applies his religious beliefs or moral convictions in daily life, documentary evidence must be provided such as evidence of performing regular volunteer work (photographs), attending a place of worship regularly (photographs), letters from friends, a pastor, churchgoers, biblical or religious instruction or training, and any other relevant evidence that tends to prove that the applicant applies his beliefs in his day-to-day life.
Additional corroborating evidence supporting the background for the religious belief or moral conviction, if available and credible, should also be submitted by the applicant. For example, regular participation in a congregation can be established by submitting affidavits from other members in the congregation etc.
It is important to note that more detailed discussions must take place between you and one of our experienced attorneys to determine what documentary evidence can be provided to meet each of the above criteria, and to further understand your belief system to ensure your waiver application is successful.
Below we will discuss a case study of our former client, with his permission, detailing what it took to get his vaccine waiver petition approved with USCIS and how he ultimately received his green card in the United States.
Case Study John – Lifelong Christian
In our client’s case, “John” was raised in the Christian church and maintained long-held ties to the religious community, including education in theology, biblical, and pastoral counseling and working as a missionary throughout his life. He contacted our office based on his opposition to vaccination in all forms, including COVID-19. After attending his green card interview, he was issued a Request for Evidence outlining the deficiencies in his Form I-693 Medical Examination including missing vaccinations. He requested an exemption to the vaccine requirement and was later issued a Notice of Intent to Deny.
John subsequently contacted our office to assist him with the preparation of his I-601 vaccine waiver based on religious belief or moral conviction. John had not taken several mandatory vaccinations based on his sincerely held religious belief that all vaccines contain a form of substance that would contaminate his body and offend his religious precepts. For instance, he was firmly opposed to vaccination due to the use of stem cells from aborted fetuses to create vaccines. He sincerely believed that taking a vaccine would therefore make him complicit in the evils of abortion and violate his conscience. John also held biblical views of the body finding its ingredients to be impure and harmful to the body.
Sincerely Held Religious Beliefs
To demonstrate John’s sincerely held religious beliefs, we focused on showing USCIS that his religious belief and moral convictions were clearly held and were consistently applied in his daily life. This included providing a sworn declaration in which he described his opposition to vaccination as being contrary to his religious beliefs, and not based on a mere preference against vaccinations.
The sincerity of his beliefs was further corroborated by actions John took in his daily life including his objection to vaccinating his young son after consulting with medical professionals’ numerous times, his conscious decision to accept employment only with an organization that allowed unvaccinated employees to test daily against COVID-19 instead of imposing a vaccine mandate, documentary evidence from his employer evidencing the application of his beliefs in daily life by inquiring numerous times about his employer’s vaccine policy, a letter from his employer confirming his sincerely held beliefs and his faith applied in his work habits such as leading daily prayer, biblical discussion, etc.
Other corroborating evidence included John’s academic background in biblical and theology related studies, affidavits from his pastor and reverend, affidavits from his immediate manager and director, photographs of John performing volunteer work and regularly participating in his congregation, leading prayer and religious instruction, participation in religious seminary, preaching, family photographs, and research relating to fetal cells used in vaccinations.
Opposition to Vaccination in All Forms
As evidence of John’s opposition to vaccination in all forms, we included his sworn declaration making clear that he opposed all and any form of vaccination, not just COVID-19, and the reasons for his opposition being grounded in his religious faith and conscience. One of the challenges in John’s case was explaining the reason he had taken a vaccine in 2018. John explained that, at that time, he was still reticent about vaccinations and later became firmly opposed to all vaccinations once his wife became pregnant with their first child. That is when John began to consider the implication of vaccines based on his religious beliefs and he deepened his religious studies into the biblical view of the body. Also included were affidavits from his spouse confirming their firm opposition to vaccinating their child and an affidavit from his child’s nurse confirming their opposition.
Objection based on religious beliefs or moral convictions
Finally, to prove that his objection to vaccination was based on his religious beliefs, we cited John’s opposition to vaccines using stem cells from aborted fetuses, and his further research finding that vaccines contain chemicals and substances that he considers sinful and impure. To further support the waiver application, we also focused on the impact that his waiver denial would have on his spouse and U.S. Citizen child, including being forced to uproot their entire lives outside of the United States, or otherwise risking family separation which would have a detrimental psychological and financial impact on the family, such as loss of consortium for wife and child.
We worked tirelessly with our client to collect the supporting documentary evidence necessary to meet each criteria of the waiver application process. We spoke carefully with our client to determine individuals who could attest to John’s sincerely held religious beliefs and their application in his daily life.
Ultimately, we were able to prove all of the criteria through supporting documentary evidence. We are happy to say that our client is now a permanent resident, and his family will remain together.
Contact us. We believe in each case our firm takes. We work together to provide the best chances for approval. If you believe your case can meet the criteria set out above, or you believe you have sincerely held religious beliefs to vaccinations, we invite you to schedule a consultation, so we can explore your options further.