By Yu Sin Mok, paralegal at Greater Boston Legal Services
“Because of the pandemic, I have already been stuck in China for five months. I don’t know when I can come back because the flights keep getting canceled,” my client Ms. Huang told me. “Will I lose my green card if I am out of the country for more than six months?
We often hear this question on the phone line for the Asian Outreach Unit of Greater Boston Legal Services, where we provide free legal services to low-income people. At the start of the pandemic, we set up a multilingual hotline so that community members could contact us easily. We have heard from many green card holders, like Ms. Huang, stuck overseas.
Answers to immigration questions like Ms. Huang’s depend on the specific facts and length of stay abroad. But some basic preparation could help you deal with any issues you may encounter upon returning to the United States.
Although you may not be interviewed at all by immigration officials upon your return to the United States, if so, keep records of your attempts to return to the United States. Statements of canceled plane tickets, or even handwritten notes of efforts made to return can be useful to show that you tried to return as soon as possible.
You must also gather all documents proving your continued connection to the United States while abroad. For example, you can keep evidence showing that you have kept your job and your apartment here, and that your immediate family members continue to live there. Other documents such as copies of IRS tax returns, any bank, credit card, and loan statements showing regular transactions, proof of registration and insurance, rent receipts, and copies of passport showing entry and exit stamps can also be used to demonstrate your ties to the United States The more records you have, the better!
Generally, a green card holder who is going to be out of the country for more than 180 days should apply for a re-entry permit while still in the United States. But many had not planned to leave so long before the pandemic began and did not apply for a re-entry permit. It is therefore important to keep information about your connection to the United States in case immigration officials wonder why you have been out of the United States for so long.
Green card holders who have been outside the United States for a year or more may decide to give up their green card. Even those who have been outside the United States for less than a year but more than 180 days can also be deemed to have waived their green card. An immigration officer may ask you questions at the airport about your intention to stay in the United States permanently and whether you have given up your green card. In this case, you can explain how the pandemic prevented you from returning and have documents ready to prove your attempts to return to the United States and your continued ties here.
When you return, it would be beneficial to keep these documents for your future citizenship application. You may need to resubmit these documents when you apply for citizenship to establish your continued ties to the United States while traveling abroad.
International travel delays and immigration challenges can be stressful, especially in these uncertain times. Ms. Huang was fortunately able to return to the United States after months of staying in China and constant flight bookings. If you have any questions about your immigration status, please do not hesitate to contact the Asian Outreach Unit of Greater Boston Legal Services at 617-603-1809.