Q&A: Travel Documents

May 29, 2000

Last week we discussed asylum and refugee status, the basis for receiving it, and the procedure for applying for it. We frequently get questions from people who have already filed their asylum applications, or who are here on refugee or parole status, but who do not yet have their green cards. It can take more than two years for such people to receive their green cards. However, many people need or want to travel outside the U.S. during that time. In addition, we get questions from people who already have gotten their green cards, but are worried how long they can travel outside the US without jeopardizing their status. The questions below are typical of the questions we get about these issues.


I came here from Georgia six months ago as a refugee. Now I need to travel to Israel to see my ill mother, but I lost my Georgian passport before I came here. Is there a way to get a temporary passport from the U.S. government?


Yes. Certain types of people can obtain "travel documents" that will enable them to travel without a passport from their own country, and to return to the U.S. at the end of their travel. For example, refugees and asylees may be eligible to obtain "Refugee Travel Documents;" political asylum applicants may be able to obtain "Advance Parole;" and permanent residents are generally eligible for "Reentry Permits."

In your case, you should apply for a "Refugee Travel Document." This document allows refugees or asylees to return to the US after travel abroad. You should apply for a refugee travel document before you leave the US. However, there are some cases where INS officials will issue travel documents to refugees or asylees who are physically outside the US. A refugee travel document is generally valid for one year.


My wife and I applied for political asylum last month. Now an emergency has arisen with our family, and we need go back to our country for a short visit. What will happen to our case if we leave?


The INS will consider that you are abandoning your case (and you won't be allowed back in the country without another visa), unless you apply for a travel document prior to leaving the U.S. You will need to apply for a travel document called "Advance Parole." Advance parole may be available to certain types of people such as: political asylum applicants, parolees, and people who have applied for permanent residence.

Keep in mind that returning to your own country, may weaken your case for political asylum. This is because the basis for your request for political asylum is that you are unsafe or subject to persecution there. If you go there for other than a real emergency, you run the risk of diminishing your claim of persecution.

The requirement to obtain Advance Parole does not apply to people, or their dependants, who are maintaining valid H-1B status or L-1 status. These types of visas automatically provide the right to leave and reenter the U.S.


My sister in Russia has muscular dystrophy, and needs constant attention. We have found a medical specialist in the U.S. that will be able to provide here with treatment that she wouldn't be able to obtain in Russia. We applied for a tourist visa for her several months ago, but the visa was denied. Is there some other way to bring her into the U.S. for this treatment?


You may try to apply for her to come here based upon "Humanitarian Parole." This is another type of "Travel Document" that is similar to "Advance Parole" I wrote about in the previous answer. In general, Humanitarian Parole is available on a case-by-case basis to people who are not otherwise eligible for a visa. The applicant must present a strong case that he or she needs to come into the U.S. to prevent a humanitarian emergency. This type of parole is potentially available to people in your sister's situation, although it is possible to be denied even in such a sympathetic case. One should really show that there is a serious risk to the applicant's life or health to have a strong case. The INS is very selective in granting humanitarian parole, and denials may not be appealed. (Of course, many Jewish citizens of countries of the former Soviet Union have come as parolees under the "Lautenberg Amendment," but that is actually a special use of "Humanitarian Parole." It is generally not so easy to get.)


I finally received my green card in the mail a month ago. That is good because I am taking my vacation in July, and want to travel to France. I plan to stay there for one month. Will that be a problem? Are there any papers I have to file with the INS before I leave?


If you are going to be gone for one month, your permanent residence status should not be affected. In fact, you may stay outside the country for up to six months and still be okay.

Many people will ask us about traveling for a year or more. There are actually two things to be concerned about when deciding how long you can travel outside the country on a green card.

The first is that you should not break the continuity of your US residence. If you do so, the result will be that you will have to start all over again counting the years until you are eligible for citizenship. That is because eligibility for citizenship is based upon continuous residence. Leaving the country for more than one year breaks this continuity. How do you prevent breaking continuity? Simply do not stay outside the country for more than one year at a time.

The second concern is that you should not appear to be abandoning your US residence. This is far more important, because if you are considered to have abandoned your US residence, your green card is worthless.

If you need to travel outside the country for more than one year (but less than two), and you are a permanent resident, you must apply for a "Reentry Permit." A reentry permit is not required for a trip that is shorter than one year. (However, even with a Reentry Permit, you are still subject to the break in continuous residence). A Reentry Permit is also available for permanent residents who want to travel, but cannot get a passport from their own country. A Reentry Permit is valid for two years.


How can I apply for a "Travel Document"?


You would apply for all three types of Travel Documents mentioned above (Refugee Travel Document, Advance Parole (and Humanitarian Parole), and Reentry Permit) using INS Form I-131. This form is appears to be very simple, but, as always, you should be very careful to fill it out correctly and completely. In addition, if you are using Form I-131 to apply for Advance Parole or Humanitarian Parole, you should consider using a lawyer to assist you. This is because of the difficulty in writing a very compelling case, and because of the inability to appeal a denial of these types of requests. (However, denials of applications for Refugee Travel Documents and Reentry Permits may be appealed).


Contact John Byrley at tel: 410-719-1501.

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