How long do I have to live there?
Dear Mrs Walker-Huntington,
I have learnt a lot from your column in The Gleaner.
Having lived in the United States (US) as a permanent resident for close to six years, circumstances forced me to return to Jamaica where I have been for almost three years, except for short visits to the US, every year. It has not been my intention to abandon my permanent resident status.
Am I correct in understanding that I would have to live for another three continuous years in the US before I could attempt to apply for citizenship? Also, would it be a disadvantage if I came on short visits (a week to two weeks) to Jamaica during that period?
As a permanent resident of the US, you are required to live in the US. Brief visits outside of the States are permitted, usually up to six months. If you remain outside of the States for a year or more, you are deemed to have abandoned your residency, and in order to return you would have to file an application as a returning resident. This application requires you to prove your prior physical US residency, and the reason for your extended stay outside of the States.
If circumstances require a green card holder to live outside of the US, the person should apply for a re-entry permit which, if granted, would allow a US resident to remain outside of the US for up to two years. The recipient of the re-entry permit should maintain their ties to the US while on the two-year hiatus. Having a re-entry permit does not prevent you from travelling back and forth to the US during the two years or from resuming your residency prior to the expiration of the permit. While your re-entry permit is valid, you must travel with it along with your passport and green card.
Some green card holders believe that if they live outside of the US but travel 'often' while only staying a couple days or weeks at a time that they preserve their permanent residency status. However, in addition to the time frames that are given for a green card holder to remain outside of the US for six months or one year, an immigration officer at a US port of entry is free to enquire into your travel pattern; that is if the officer sees that as a green card holder you are actually spending the vast majority of your time outside of the US, you can be placed in secondary inspection and even deferred inspection where your residency can be questioned. You could ultimately be referred to an immigration judge for proceedings to take your green card.
As for an application for US citizenship, you must be a green card holder for five years, (three years if obtained through marriage to a US citizen and you are married and living with your US spouse); not be absent from the US for any period of six months or more; and be a person of good moral character. So, if you have not been outside the US for a period of six months or more, and you return to living full-time in the US, in three years you could apply for US citizenship. Brief trips during that three-year period should not make you ineligible based on continuous or physical presence.
Dahlia A. Walker-Huntington is a Jamaican-American attorney who practises immigration law in the United States; and family, criminal and personal injury law in Florida. She is a mediator, arbitrator and special magistrate in Broward County, Florida; and an adjunct professor at Miami Dade College's School of Justice. firstname.lastname@example.org