** LEGAL UPDATE **
If you were in an area affected by major flooding—as so many people in the U.S. have been lately—your U.S. passport or visa may have gotten soaked in water. And you have probably discovered that the ink the manufacturers used is not waterproof. Your documents may thus be smudged or unreadable.
U.S. Customs and Border Border Protection (CBP) has recently warned that illegible documents cannot necessarily be used for travel and U.S. reentry.
If you yourself have trouble reading your passport or other immigration documents, then so will whoever reviews them at the border. What's more, the passport or visa you use to reenter the U.S. needs to be capable of being read by the automated machines that such documents are now scanned through. Machines are not known for puzzling out smudged letters.
If, therefore, you have water-damaged documents, it's a good idea to replace them before leaving the U.S. for international travel. If you don't have time to do do before leaving, then you'll need to plan to stay outside the U.S. long enough to apply for and receive a new visa or passport before you attempt to return.
Taking your chances and showing up at the airport, ready to fly to the U.S., is not a good idea. You might not be permitted to board the plane if your passport or other document cannot be scanned and read by the machine. Airlines are given little discretion as to who they allow to board—if the machine says no, the answer will be no.
Coming to a land border might be easier. You will get to meet with a CBP officer, who has the power to grant a waiver of the required entry document. Whether the officer will do so is another matter, but if you have an urgent reason for returning, it might be worth a try. Hiring an attorney could help with this process. The attorney could contact the port of entry before you arrive to talk about the details of your case and explain why your request for a waiver deserves approval. The lawyer won't be able to get a final "yes" on your behalf, but can at least get the conversation started, and figure out what type of followup question to expect.
For details on how to apply for replacement documents, go to the How to Apply for a Passportpage of the U.S. State Department's website; or its page about Lost and Stolen Passports, Visa, and Arrival/Departure Records (Form I-94).
And when you get your new documents, be sure to make copies and keep them and the originals in various safe places for storage.
Effective date: September 20, 2017