The Covid-19 crisis has caused large disruptions in daily life and created significant difficulties for international travel. Many green card holders were outside the U.S. when the crisis hit and may be reluctant to travel back to the U.S. for a variety of reasons, including health or family issues. Remaining outside the U.S. for extended periods of time is generally not recommended for green card holders as this can jeopardize their status. Green card holders who know they will be outside the U.S. for a lengthy period should apply for a re-entry permit before leaving. However, you must physically be in the U.S. when the re-entry permit application is filed, so if you are already outside the U.S. due to COVID-19 this is not an option.
In order to maintain your green card you must maintain ties to the United States that demonstrate that the U.S. is your permanent home. A lengthy absence, particularly absences over 180 days, can lead to questions when you re-enter the U.S. to determine whether you have abandoned your status.
I have been outside the U.S. for 180 days but cannot return yet due to COVID-19. What are my options?
If you have been outside the U.S. for 180 days, you will likely face additional scrutiny at the border when you return. Due to the length of your absence, you will be considered an applicant for admission, which means the immigration officer at the border will ask questions to determine if you are admissible to the U.S. You should be prepared to explain the length of your absence and to provide documentation showing that you have maintained your ties to the U.S. For example, if you were outside the U.S. tending to an ill family member but your immediate family remained in the U.S. and you maintained your home and employment in the U.S., this would be good evidence that you have not abandoned your status.
Will I be able to travel to the U.S. if my green card or I-551 stamp expired? What if I lost my green card?
If your green card has expired, you should contact your airline to confirm that they will allow you to board with the expired green card. Green card holders with expired 10-year green cards or expired permanent resident cards for conditional residents that also have a Form I-797 showing their status was extended should still be able to enter the U.S. If you lost your green card, you have the option of filing for a Boarding foil request at the Embassy using Form I-131A. You are only eligible for a boarding foil if you have been outside the U.S. for less than 1 year.
What if I am not able to travel back to the U.S. for more than 1 year? Will I lose my status?
Technically once you are outside the U.S. for more than a year, your green card is no longer a valid travel document, even if it has not yet expired. In order to return to the U.S. you have the option of applying for a Returning Resident (SB-1) visa at a U.S. Consulate. You would need to demonstrate that when you last departed the United States, you had the intention of returning to a permanent residence and that your stay abroad was for reasons beyond your control and for which you were not responsible. If the reason you did not return was due to COVID-19 you should bring documentation to support this. The longer you remain outside the U.S., the more difficult it may be to prove that you have not abandoned your status.
If you have been outside the U.S. for more than a year and you have not been able to get an appointment at the Consulate but your green card has not yet expired, you may also consider flying back to the U.S. directly and explaining at the port of entry that you have not abandoned your permanent resident status. If the immigration official at the border is satisfied that you have not abandoned your status, they may waive you into the U.S. Even if they do not waive you into the U.S. you should still be given the opportunity to go before an Immigration Judge and argue that you have not abandoned your permanent resident status.
In order to preserve the argument that you have not abandoned your green card, you should continue to maintain ties to the United States. When assessing whether someone has abandoned their permanent resident status immigration officials will look at factors such as how frequently you are outside the U.S., why you are traveling, where you are employed, where you maintain property and financial assets and where your immediate family lives. You should also file U.S. tax returns as a resident and should not declare yourself a nonimmigrant on your tax returns.
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