Immigration Q&A: Leaving the U.S. is easy; getting back in may be hard

Q. I filed an adjustment of status (AOS) application to become a legal permanent resident in the U.S. based on my marriage to a U.S. citizen. I received a card authorizing me to work legally in the U.S., and I understand that I probably will have my green card interview fairly soon. Could I now fly back to Ireland for a couple of weeks this summer, before I actually receive permanent resident status? I haven’t been home in a couple of years, and I want to introduce my wife to my family.

A. The fact that US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) granted you authorization to work legally in the U.S. while your AOS application is pending does not mean that it is safe for you to travel abroad just yet. You did not specify your status before you married a U.S. citizen, but we assume, since you have not been home in two years, that you currently are undocumented.
If you have been unlawfully present in the U.S. for more than 180 days and less than a year, and you travel outside of the U.S. before you are granted legal permanent resident status, you face a three-year bar from reentering the U.S. Unlawful presence for a year or more triggers a ten-year bar. These bars would affect you despite the fact that you have married a citizen and have an AOS application pending. Likewise, the fact that you may have U.S. citizen-children who were born here does not affect the situation. Therefore, it is crucial that you remain in the U.S. until you are granted legal permanent resident status at or after your green card interview in the USCIS offices here. Then you will be able to travel abroad for periods up to six months and return to the U.S. with no problem and no need to apply for permission. (A green card holder who travels abroad for more than six months is in a different situation and should obtain legal advice before such a trip.)
In general, AOS applicants who have not been unlawfully present for 180 days or more must apply to USCIS to obtain permission to reenter the U.S. before traveling abroad. This is called “Advance Parole.” The form required is I-131. The IIC can assist with the preparation and filing of this form. Likewise, readers should contact us if they want to travel abroad but have any doubt whatsoever about whether their current immigration status will allow them to return to the U.S. In all too many cases we receive calls from abroad from people seeking to get back to the U.S. Often it is too late: by traveling without authorization they have subjected themselves to the three- or ten-year bar.
This area of immigration law can be confusing. Some people should not travel outside the U.S. at all, others can do so if they obtain advance parole before their trip, and others are allowed to travel and reenter the U.S. without seeking any authorization from USCIS in advance. Form I-131 contains nine pages of instructions, and it is quite likely that readers will have difficulty making sense of them and applying them to their specific situations. The solution? See us first.
For a confidential consultation on this or any other aspect of immigration law, visit one of our legal clinics as noted in The Boston Irish Reporter each month.

Disclaimer: These articles are published to inform generally, not to advise in individual cases. Areas of law are rapidly changing. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and the Department of State regularly amend regulations and alter processing and filing procedures. For legal advice seek the assistance of an IIC immigration specialist or an immigration lawyer.