Getting a green card normally allows a foreign national to lawfully remain in the U.S. for the rest of their life. However, there are two possible situations in which a foreign national might lose their green card. These involve violating criminal or immigration laws, as well as abandoning their permanent residence in the U.S. To avoid these problems, a foreign national may want to apply for citizenship once they qualify for it. In most cases, you can apply for citizenship five years after getting a green card, but the period may be shorter for certain types of foreign nationals.
Deportation Based on Crimes or Immigration Violations
You can lose your green card even if the crime that you committed was not a felony or another serious type of crime. Minor drug possession, petty theft, and domestic violence are common grounds for deportation, but they often are charged as misdemeanors. Immigration authorities do not provide a clear list of crimes that can expose a green card holder to deportation. Thus, you should consult an immigration lawyer if you are charged with a crime to find out whether a conviction may lead to deportation. (Technically, any criminal lawyer who represents you will be required to tell you about the immigration consequences of a conviction, but they may not be able to offer clear, thorough advice. Immigration laws and regulations are complicated, and not all criminal lawyers understand them.)
Immigration violations also can provide a basis for deporting a green card holder. Examples may include making false statements on your application for an immigrant visa, helping another foreign national violate immigration rules, or failing to tell USCIS about a change of address. You must notify USCIS of your new address within 10 days of moving.
Abandoning Your Residence in the U.S.
If you leave the U.S. for more than a year while you hold a green card, you will face heightened scrutiny from immigration officials for possibly abandoning your U.S. residence. More stringent enforcement of immigration rules in recent years has led to suspicion of foreign nationals who are gone for more than six months. An absence of this length may indicate that a foreign national intends to make their home in a different country. An absence longer than six months (or even a year) does not automatically equate to abandoning your U.S. residence, though. Sometimes a foreign national can show that they did not intend to spend so long outside the country, or that extenuating circumstances required a long absence.
If you live in Canada or Mexico, while commuting across the border to work in the U.S., you can keep your green card even though your home is not physically located in the U.S. You must inform USCIS of your intention to get commuter status.
After a stay of longer than one year outside the U.S., you will need to get an immigrant visa as a returning resident if you do not have a reentry permit. You can get this special type of visa at a U.S. consulate in the country where you are currently located. The consular official must determine that the foreign national did not have the intent to abandon their U.S. residence but was forced to stay outside the U.S. for unexpected reasons. These might include the serious illness or death of a family member. You will need to submit documentation to support your application.
Getting a Reentry Permit
Green card holders who expect that they will need to stay outside the U.S. for more than one year can get a reentry permit from USCIS. A reentry permit will allow an absence of up to two years. This process involves submitting Form I-131 to USCIS and undergoing fingerprinting before you leave. When you come back to the U.S., you can display the reentry permit to immigration authorities. You cannot get a reentry permit if you are already outside the U.S., and you cannot renew an existing permit. If you need to spend more than two years outside the U.S., you can keep your green card only if you temporarily return to the U.S. before the two-year period expires and get another reentry permit.