For many U.S. immigrants, achieving lawful permanent residence, commonly known as a “green card,” is a momentous milestone and the final step in their immigration journey.

Some employers assume that these employees are exempt from travel and entry restrictions once they have a valid green card. After all, employers no longer need to file extension petitions or renew visa stamps for these employees. The false perception that green-card holders enjoy unrestricted entry into the U.S. may also have been reinforced by the fact that green-card holders are exempt from many of the recent COVID-19 travel bans.

However, as we near the one-year mark since COVID-19 shuttered borders around the world, employers should revisit the often-forgotten restrictions on green-card holders who remain outside the U.S. for over one year.

Generally, when green-card holders enter the U.S., an immigration officer will determine their intent to reside in the U.S. and confirm the validity of their green card and reentry permit. Green-card holders can document their intent to reside in the U.S. through evidence of close ties in the U.S., such as maintaining a principal U.S. residence, paying taxes, holding a job in the U.S., having bank accounts or owning property in the U.S. Additionally, immigration officers will consider both the length and frequency of trips as factors in deciding if the employee intends to reside in the U.S.

Trips lasting less than a year. Some green-card holders assume that frequent trips abroad for less than six months do not present any red flags. This is not accurate. Immigration officers have the authority and discretion to question a green-card holder’s intent, regardless of the length or frequency of a trip. Additionally, green-card holders will likely experience more scrutiny at the port of entry when the length of the trip is over six months. Although COVID-19 may provide a reasonable explanation for lengthy trips, green-card holders should be prepared for additional questions upon return. All green-card holders must present their unexpired green cards as a valid entry document.

Trips lasting more than one year. Employers and employees should focus on longer absences as the pandemic enters its second year. Green-card holders who leave the U.S. for longer than one year face detrimental consequences: Not only are they presumed to have abandoned their permanent-residence status, the green card becomes invalid for reentry into the U.S. In this scenario, they must apply for and obtain a “returning resident” (SB-1) immigrant visa at the U.S. embassy or consulate, showing that they departed the U.S. with the intent to return and that the extended stay abroad was for reasons beyond their control.

While green-card holders may technically travel directly to the U.S. without applying for a returning-resident visa, this approach is much riskier because the decision to admit the employee is left to the discretion of the immigration officer at the port of entry, both to waive the requirement that the employee show valid documents and to confirm that he or she did not intend to abandon permanent residence status.

Generally, the longer the trip, the more challenging the reentry. If feasible, obtaining a reentry permit before departing the U.S. can help prevent issues. For employees who have been stranded abroad during COVID-19, employers should review entry restrictions for green-card holders and take steps now to avoid unnecessary obstacles for returning employees and to ease their transition back to the U.S.

This article was originally published in the Washington Business Journal.

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