A U.S. green card signifies that you have lawful permanent residence; which, as its name suggests, is something you can potentially keep for life. Nevertheless, you must meet a few conditions if you truly want your U.S. residence to be permanent. For starters, you must not violate certain criminal or immigration laws—including one that requires you to advise U.S. immigration authorities within ten days if you change addresses. In addition, you must not abandon the United States as your permanent residence. To fail to comply with the relevant rules risks deportation from the United States. We'll provide an overview of these issues here.
The most common way that people lose their right to a U.S. green card is by committing a crime, whether in the United States or elsewhere. Unlike what is commonly believed, it doesn't have to be a major crime or a felony to make someone deportable. (See Crimes That Will Make an Immigrant Deportable for a more extensive discussion.)
For example, a person can be removed from the United States (deported) for helping someone enter the U.S. illegally, for committing domestic violence, for possessing even a small amount of drugs, or for any crime that's considered morally wrong (such as fraud, theft, a crime with the intent of doing great bodily harm, or a sex offense).
Some of these crimes are misdemeanors that might not be punishable with time in jail.
There is no set list that tells you which crimes make you deportable. If you are arrested for anything at all, consult not only a criminal lawyer, but also an immigration lawyer to find out whether and how you can avoid removal (deportation).
Although criminal lawyers have an obligation to advise people about the immigration consequences of pleading guilty, few criminal lawyers actually understand the immigration laws as well as immigration lawyers do. Criminal lawyers who don't know the immigration laws well might encourage you to plead guilty to something as a way of avoiding jail time, for example, not realizing that your guilty plea could get you deported.
A person can also be removed from the U.S. for certain violations that don't fall under the criminal laws. For example, if U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) discovers that you got your green card through a fraudulent (sham) marriage, or any other type of fraud, you can be removed.
An immigrant can even be removed from the U.S. for failing to advise USCIS of a change of address within ten days of moving. In the past, USCIS almost never did anything about this. However, with increased security concerns, USCIS more often uses this rule against people it wishes to remove from the United States. You can use USCIS's online service to notify it of your change of address. Also see What If I Forgot to Tell USCIS of My Change of Address?.
Many people wrongly believe that to keep your green card all you need to do is enter the U.S. at least once a year. The fact is that if you ever leave the U.S. with the intention of making some other country your permanent home, you might be giving up your U.S. residency when you go. If you then try coming back to the U.S., the border officials will look at your behavior for signals that your real place of residence has not actually been in the United States.
As a broad rule, if you have a green card and leave the United States for more than one year, you might have difficulty reentering the country afterward. That is because the U.S. government feels that an absence of longer than one year indicates a possible abandonment of U.S. residence. What's more, U.S. border officials are basically forced to take a close look at your case, because after one year's absence, the green card is automatically invalid for travel purposes.
Even if you do return before one year, you could run into trouble. To avoid a full-scale inspection, return within six months.
On the other hand, remaining outside the U.S. for more than one year does not mean you automatically lose your right to a green card. If your absence was intended from the start to be only temporary—for example, you left to take care of sick father for a few months, but you had to care for your father for over a year until he died—you might be able to argue to keep your permanent resident status.
Green card holders who commute to work in the U.S. from Canada or Mexico on a daily or seasonal basis may keep their cards even while actually living outside the country. USCIS will grant you commuter status if you advise it of your intention to live on the other side of the U.S. border.
If you stay outside the United States for more than one year and do not get a reentry permit (described below) before leaving, you must apply at a U.S. consulate abroad for an SB-1 visa as a returning resident. You must convince the U.S. consular officer (actually, two consular officers) that your absence was temporary and you never planned to abandon your U.S. residence. These approvals are discretionary, meaning they are basically doing you a favor, and can always say no.
You will have to show evidence that you were kept away longer than one year due to unforeseen circumstances. Such evidence might be a letter from a doctor showing that you or a family member had a medical problem.
If you hold a green card and know in advance that you must be outside the United States for more than one year, it's worth applying to USCIS for a reentry permit. This lets you to stay away for up to two years. See Don't Lose Your Green Card Due to Long Absence From the U.S.
You should send in your application before leaving, and wait until you've been called in for your biometrics (fingerprinting) appointment. Use USCIS Form I-131. See Reentry Permit Process for U.S. Permanent Residents. Your reentry permit will serve as an entry document when you are ready to return.
Reentry permits cannot be renewed and can be applied for only inside the United States. If you want to stay away for more than two years, you must return briefly and apply for another reentry permit.
You can lower the chances of losing your residence in the United States by applying for naturalized citizenship, as soon as you are eligible. The waiting time for eligibility is usually five years after you get a green card, but there are exceptions.
For example, the wait essentially drops to four years if you received asylum (because your first year as an asylee counts), and to three years if, at the time you got your green card, you were married to a U.S. citizen and you're still married and living together.
For more information about qualifying for naturalization, Becoming a U.S. Citizen: A Guide to the Law, Exam & Interview, by Ilona Bray.