The coronavirus “2019-nCoV” epidemic has resulted in a lockdown of millions of people in China, just as the country was celebrating the Lunar New Year 2020. Many are unable to leave their cities either due to travel restrictions imposed by the government or fear of being infected by the virus by boarding a bus, train, or airplane. Given the circumstances, many U.S. permanent residents, or green card holders, who are currently in China may remain abroad for longer than anticipated, which can result in issues at the border upon reentry to the United States.

Spending significant amounts of time outside the United States is a serious problem for any green card holder, including those impacted by the coronavirus. Absences of more than six (6) months from the U.S. can lead to extensive questioning at the airport or point of entry to the U.S. by the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection (CBP). A CBP officer can determine upon reentry to the U.S. that the green card holder has abandoned his or her permanent resident status, especially for absences lasting more than six months. Absences of more than one year are extremely problematic and can lead to a finding at the border that the green card holder has abandoned his or her permanent residence in the U.S., and placement of the green card holder into removal proceedings.

Under normal circumstances, a green card holder who foresees spending significant time outside of the U.S. would apply for a reentry permit, which if granted, establishes that he or she did not intend to abandon permanent resident status and allows him or her to leave and reenter the U.S. during its validity, even if the absence from the U.S. is more than one year. However, applicants for a reentry permit must be physically present in the U.S. when filing for a reentry permit with USCIS. Also, prior to the approval of a reentry permit, the applicant is scheduled for and must attend a biometrics appointment in the United States. Therefore, many who cannot leave China because of the coronavirus do not have the possibility of obtaining reentry permits.

Green card holders who find themselves in this situation may consider preserving evidence of their intentions to return to the United States by taking the following potentially helpful steps to “maintain ties to the U.S.”:

  • Maintain a residence in the U.S. This can be through the ownership of a home or renting an apartment.
  • Maintain bank accounts, credit cards and investments in the U.S. to show financial ties.
  • Maintain insurance in the U.S., including home, health, and life insurance.
  • File U.S. tax returns.
  • Have utilities, a driver’s license, and car ownership in the permanent resident’s name.

Additionally, green card holders should consider carrying with them evidence of their ties to the U.S. after an extended absence abroad, in case they are questioned at the airport regarding their absence from the U.S. Under current circumstances, if a green card holder is questioned upon reentry to the U.S. after a long stay in China, for example, he or she should be prepared to explain the reasons for the extended absence, including coronavirus-travel restrictions. CBP is well-apprised of the “2019-nCoV” outbreak. On Jan. 17, 2020, the CBP, along with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) began implementing enhanced health screenings to detect ill travelers on direct or connecting flights from Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the outbreak, for symptoms associated with the coronavirus at three U.S. airports, San Francisco (SFO), New York (JFK), and Los Angeles (LAX). Screening for 2019-nCoV has been extended now to twenty (20) airports across the United States.

As a result of the coronavirus, a number of U.S. permanent residents may face such health screenings as well as questioning by CBP about their lengthy trips abroad after being forced to cancel their initial return flights to the U.S. However, as one example of showing “ties to the U.S.,” individuals in this situation should retain their canceled trip itineraries, including plane tickets previously purchased for their short trips, and bring these documents with them once able to safely travel back to the United States. It may be necessary for green card holders to show these documents and explain to the CBP officer, if questioned about the extended absence abroad, that they had in fact planned a short trip to visit family in China for the Lunar New Year and had full intentions of returning to the U.S., but due to the unforeseen and dangerous circumstances surrounding the coronavirus outbreak, they were forced to cancel an earlier return flight to the U.S. and rebook it for a later date once travel restrictions were eased or it was safe for them to travel.

If you are a U.S. permanent resident and have questions about your extended absence from the United States due to the coronavirus or other unrelated reasons, please contact your immigration attorney.