In the last week of 2016, my wife and I returned the U.S. Permanent Resident Card (the “Green Card”) to the U.S. government, ending 9 years of long-term permanent resident (LPR) status in the U.S.
Even though it would be convenient to say so, this isn’t a political statement based on the outcome of the U.S. presidential elections.
In September 2012, we had already moved back to Germany from Kirkland (near Seattle; lived there for six years). As I moved back here, I effectively took an overseas assignment by my employer. My work contract is with the German organization. We had actively retained the LPR status since then to keep the doors open for a potential return to the U.S. But that isn’t really on the table for foreseeable future for a variety of reasons.
The short summary of my experience with the Green Card, in our particular situation, is that it didn’t do a whole lot for us, except for speeding up border entries. But that’s easy to say in hindsight and it’s not generalizable. I still think it might be useful to share some of the experience and insights.
Unlike non-immigrant work visa, which are tied to a particular employer and department, the Green Card gives you universal employment authorization in the U.S. That would have made things easier if I had switched jobs in the U.S., but ultimately wasn’t something that mattered. The Green Card is clearly designed as a step on the path to U.S. citizenship and that was never a true option for either of us.
Taking citizenship, after having LPR status for at least 5 years and fulfilling some further residency requirements, would either have required giving up the German citizenship or obtaining an explicit permit by the German government to retain the German citizenship while taking an additional one. For that permit you need a good set of reasons. I might find them due to work circumstances, but it’d be more difficult for my wife, and we were definitely not giving up the German passport.
Taking the Green Card was not a deeply thought-through decision on my part; it was just an easy part of the legal process my employer had set on motion. Their principle is to get everyone working in the U.S. to Green Card status. Because of the particular visa class that had been picked for me (O-1 for “Individuals with Extraordinary Ability or Achievement”), the subsequent Green Card approval and application process was exceptionally expedient and didn’t even take a year.
I wish there were a few more “stop and think” bumps in that process, because taking the Green Card may have, depending on your situation, some dramatic financial consequences if you are not deciding to stay in the U.S. and go the citizenship route, but rather elect to “go home”. I’ll get to those consequences at the end.
The U.S. LPR status is “citizenship purgatory”. You have all the global tax-filing (and other) obligations of a regular U.S. citizen and you can legally take any job from anyone, but you generally have fewer rights than a citizen. You can’t vote. You’re still a “foreigner” in all sorts of contexts.
Green Card holders are formally required to carry said card on them at all times, making them the only group of U.S. residents with a federal identity card. A biometric card, with your fingerprints on it, and a digital photo.
Part of the LPR application process is also a full medical exam that may involve required vaccinations. When native U.S. citizens complain about the idea of a federal ID being intrusive, any Green Card holder needs to laugh.
Practically speaking, carrying the card on you is unwise, because it is, in most places in the U.S., unlikely for your immigration status to be challenged in the street by local law enforcement. In many large cities, the local law enforcement will explicitly never do so.
If you were to carry and lose the card or have it stolen, replacing it will be a giant hassle and might take weeks during which time you’re effectively grounded for travel into or out of the U.S. For the fingerprint data held by USCIS to be usable for a new card, it cannot be older than 15 months. If it is, you need to apply for a fingerprinting appointment, which can easily take 2-3 weeks just to schedule, and the assigned date may then be another 2-3 weeks out.
The same applies when you renew your green card (which is valid for 10 years) or, as it applied to us, if you need to apply for a “re-entry permit” which also carries a fingerprinting requirement. The “reentry permit” requirement is a good reminder that green card holders are by far the most supervised U.S. residents and that freedom is limited: With LPR status, you cannot leave the country for more than 180 days.
If you leave the country for more than 180 days, the border control officer is entitled to turn you away at the point of entry and take your green card. They can actually do so at any time, if they determine that you are spending too much time abroad in a situation that isn’t “temporary”. To avoid that, you are required to ask for permission ahead of time for any such situation where you need to stay outside the country for longer. The “reentry permit” documents this and it’s a little blue passport-like booklet that you need to present at each border entry.
The permit is valid for two years, can be extended for another two years, and can then be extended for a year at a time. Each time you apply for an extension, you need a new set of fingerprints. You need to apply for the fingerprinting appointment while in the U.S. and if you were to leave the country while the fingerprinting scheduling is in progress, your scheduling request is considered abandoned. That process costs 4-6 weeks during which you’re required to stay put in the U.S. even though it’s explicitly for extending a permit that allows you to stay outside the U.S. Eventually every year.
That renewal process is obviously unsustainable, and it is so, obviously, by design. While in LPR status and no matter where you are, the tax filing and reporting requirements also continue to be that of a U.S. citizen, so even if I don’t have any U.S. sourced income, I still need to file a U.S. tax return that is more complicated than what you can do with some online filing tool. All hassle, no upside.
Giving up the Green Card
Giving up the green card is done with the easiest of all immigration forms: I-407. You put in your address, attach the card, and mail it in. From that point onwards, the relationship with the U.S. is reset. I now have to apply for ESTA to travel or, as I do, apply for a new non-immigrant visa that permits me to do productive work in the U.S.
The upside is that this now reflects the true status of the “relationship” and there is no more risk for my status to be changed involuntarily, which may cause all sorts of serious trouble.
The harder part is the tax form that goes along with that act for that year’s tax return: Form 8854. Depending on a fairly complicated set of conditions, long-term permanent residents may be treated equal to U.S. citizens that choose to give up their citizenship for another country. The expatriation penalty is a one-time capital-gains tax liability on all of your world-wide assets. There’s an house-sized exemption (about $700.000) and some further gating conditions, but with a well-paying job and good savings discipline or inherited assets, it’s not all that unlikely to hit. And that may end up being a very sizable tax bill.
As things work out for me, I’m not eligible for the expatriation tax because of having claimed the U.S./Germany tax treaty for the past four years, but learning about this out of the blue was quite a bit of a shock.
Consider your options
My summary piece of advice out of all this for anyone applying for a U.S. Green Card is to think about where you want to be in the long run. If you’re going to the U.S. to live there forever, take it as a step towards citizenship and pursue that quickly. If you think about living and working in the U.S. temporarily and not take the citizenship, familiarize yourself with the consequences of giving up the status afterwards.
Reading through the instructions of Form 8854, talking to a tax advisor, and thinking of your current and future financial plans, should be part of that process; and before you apply for LPR status.
Now, even though I say that this the act of returning the Green Card at this point in time isn’t politically motivated, it appears impossible to write about this without making a political point, after all:
The writing is on the wall that there will be changes in the U.S. immigration system and I expect the processes for gaining and sustaining work authorization to become even more complicated than they are today. In how far such changes could affect collaboration with my coworkers in the U.S., and my ability to travel there in the frequency we’re accustomed to remains to be seen, but I’m fairly optimistic that the incoming administration isn’t really going to try to kill productive cross-border collaboration within multinational companies.
There is worry that the incoming U.S. administration may introduce all sorts of further profiling on “foreigners” and may it only be for populist effect. I don’t know what “extreme vetting” means, but I find that a scary term, even though personally I may, and that is sad in itself, have less to worry about than people from other parts of the world and other backgrounds. Being a long-time permanent resident at the mercy of potentially changing rules the executive branch of the U.S. government isn’t a comforting thought. So in the end, it is a relief to have reset the relationship at this point.
Just to be super clear: None of this is legal advice of any sort