As stories of stranded immigrants filled the airwaves in recent weeks, I flashed back to the nightmare that my husband would be unable to come home.
It was 2006, and we were planning our first overseas trip together — a swing through Europe to visit family. Oggi was in New York on a long-term student visa, and it came with a peculiar twist: His status was secure as long as he stayed in the U.S. But if he left, there was no guarantee he’d be allowed back in, even with paperwork in order.
We had heard horror stories of international students who went home for vacation and got stranded overseas, having been inexplicably denied a re-entry visa or other paperwork to return. They were victims of an immigration system that, while marvelously functional in some respects, has always been cruelly arbitrary in others.
I remember holding my breath in my father-in-law’s Peugeot while Oggi stood in line at the U.S. consulate, waiting for the approval of his re-entry documents. And I recall many, many nerve-wracking interviews at U.S. Customs over the years as agents questioned Oggi, now a legal permanent resident, about his overseas travel.
It’s an anxiety that has grown for thousands of travelers since January, when President Trump suspended entry into the U.S. for nationals of seven Muslim-majority countries (Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia, Iraq, Yemen and Syria). The move inspired an outpouring of protest — much of it from outraged Jewish Americans — a flurry of legal action, including, as of this writing, an overturn of the ban in court and the first lawsuit filed against the government by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society in its 135-year history.
This column can’t offer concrete counsel, given the fluidity of U.S. immigration policy and the ambiguity of President Trump’s methodology. But I can offer advice for would-be travelers — especially those readers who hold green cards, or who have Sephardic origins in the countries in question.
First, remember: A U.S. passport is your best defense. There were early reports of naturalized U.S. citizens being hassled at customs due to their having origins in the targeted countries, but in the absence of criminal circumstances, U.S. citizens — native or naturalized — ultimately cannot legally be refused entry in their own country.
To naturalize, a would-be citizen must first hold a green card. The technical term for such a person is lawful permanent resident, a foreign national who has undergone lengthy, invasive vetting — financial, social, criminal and medical — to become an American immigrant.
I read the full text of President Trump’s executive order, and it contained no specific references to permanent residents, giving rise to the confusion that resulted in legal green card holders being denied entry during those first, confusing days of the travel ban.
But here’s the truth: Permanent residency has always been an uncertain status for overseas travelers, regardless of origin. If you’re out of the country for more than six months, expect a grilling at customs; more than a year, and you flirt with losing that green card.
As immigration officials emphasized to me over the years, there is no maximum number of days a permanent resident can spend out of the country without worry. A green card can be withdrawn at any time if a border official doubts the holder’s long-term commitment to America, a deliberately subjective and ambiguous measure.
The recent ban was later clarified to emphasize holders of visas — the most precarious immigration status and a broad category including everyone from refugees and family members to students, workers, tourists and investors.
But confusion remained about whether the ban applied to non-American passport holders of the seven countries, to dual citizens, or to Americans with national origins in those countries. Though it quickly came to be known as the “Muslim ban,” multiple news outlets reported that Jews from Iran and elsewhere had been caught up in the chaos.
What does this mean for travelers? First, know your rights. Dual citizens of a target country and the U.S. or a third country — say, a Tehran-born Jew with dual Canadian or U.S. citizenship — were never supposed to have been included in the order, and should not be affected by any new developments, according to multiple authorities.
If you hold a green card and you like to travel, naturalize at the first opportunity. Make sure all your documents are up to date, scanned and backed up. Apply for a USCIS re-entry permit if you expect to be abroad longer than six months; it’s not a guarantee, but it bolsters your case as a permanent resident.
If I held a visa — from any country — I would consult an immigration expert before traveling overseas right now, just to avoid any surprises. For urgent assistance, start with New York’s ACLU chapter ( 607-3300) or the New York Immigrant Coalition ( 627-2227). Always have a Plan B.
Does that all sound paranoid? Maybe. But boy, do I have some stories I could tell.