When the pandemic hit, Keri Smith and her family fled with what they could fit in their car. They spent the past 15 months in Canada, where she was born, at a family cottage in rural Nova Scotia.
Now that Smith and her husband are fully vaccinated, they're ready to come back to their home in Northampton, Mass.
"I have my house; my kids go to school," Smith said in an interview with NPR. "We want to get back to our lives. We are ready. And we can't."
Smith's situation is complicated by the fact that she is not a U.S. citizen. She's a lawful permanent resident but has been out of the country for more than a year, which means she could have trouble crossing the border.
For many Americans, it's getting easier to move around the world as COVID-19 restrictions are lifted. But it's a very different picture for immigrants who are trying to get back home to the U.S. They're navigating a range of complex legal situations as they try to return to jobs and families and homes — and finding their paths blocked by the pandemic and the major disruptions to the immigration system and global travel that it caused.
Even green card holders are finding their residency in the U.S. may not be quite as permanent as they thought.
"They've done everything to maintain their residency here. They are paying taxes here," said Allen Orr, the president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, in an interview with NPR. "And now we have said to them, 'We don't care about you.' "
Leaving for more than a year without permission can create problems
It's not clear how many green card holders are still abroad, but Orr says the number is likely in the thousands.
Some green card holders were driven by concern for their own health. Keri Smith says she was particularly worried because she has been diagnosed with mast cell activation disorder and feared her condition could exacerbate complications from COVID-19.
"I was just like, 'I need to stay alive through this,' " Smith said. "I honestly felt afraid for my life because of my medical situation."
Other permanent residents left the U.S. to care for sick loved ones overseas. They didn't intend to be gone for so long, but they couldn't return because of travel restrictions.
"Suddenly they were faced with the situation where they could not come back," said Tahmina Watson, an immigration lawyer in Seattle, in an interview with NPR. "As the months and weeks and months had progressed, the situation only got worse."
Lawful permanent residents are supposed to get permission before leaving the country for more than a year. If they don't, immigration authorities can conclude that such residents have abandoned their residency and they can potentially lose their green card.
Permanent residents who've been abroad for over a year can apply for a special reentry visa — except that many U.S. embassies and consulates around the world are closed, and those that are open have huge backlogs.
There is one other option: Show up at the border or the airport, and plead your case.
Customs officers have some leeway but can't make any promises
"There's some hesitancy. There's fear. It's completely understandable. But the officers are prepared for that," said Aaron Bowker, a public affairs liaison with U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
CBP officers have the discretion to place returning green card holders in deportation proceedings if it is suspect they have abandoned their residency. But Bowker says those officers are taking the pandemic into account.
"What were you supposed to do if airlines couldn't fly here for six, eight months, right? You couldn't get back here," he said in an interview with NPR. "These are all things we take into consideration when we're readmitting people into the country."
What CBP cannot do, Bowker says, is promise that anybody who has been out of the country during the pandemic can just come back in, no questions asked.
"Things are handled on a case-by-case basis. It's very hard to paint a blanket brush for everybody saying everything's going to be OK," he said. "That is really dependent upon the interview with the officer."
But, immigration lawyers say, this situation is breeding confusion. Some airlines are not allowing green card holders to board planes for the U.S., even though CBP says they should.
"This is an easy situation for the Biden administration to just make a policy and say, 'You know, for this time period, for the COVID period, we're just gonna ignore this rule. You're able to fly back into the country,' " Orr said.
The situation is disproportionately harming immigrants of color, Orr argues, because, he says, they're more likely to be scrutinized or turned away at the border.
CBP disputes that. Bowker says officers are trained not to take race and religion into account when making decisions about admissibility and to recognize that some travelers may find the interview process stressful.
"It's an uncomfortable position to be in," said Bowker. "Part of our job is to try and make it as comfortable for the person as possible, because there's no real reason for it not to be."
"It feels like a gamble" and can seem like there are no good options
But some green card holders describe encounters with customs officers that are far from welcoming.
Yael Sachs says her mother, who is a green card holder, recently flew back to the U.S. from Israel, where she and Sachs' father had spent much of the past year. They came to stay with Sachs, a naturalized citizen who has lived in the U.S. for more than 20 years, at her home outside Seattle.
"They came back as soon as they could, which happened to be the day before it would have been a full year that my mother was out of the country," Sachs said in an interview.
The customs officer at the airport in Chicago was suspicious, Sachs says, and wanted to know why her mother had been out of the U.S. for so long.
"He said, 'I need to look into this.' He left. He was gone for quite a while, certainly long enough for my parents to get very nervous," Sachs said. "He came back. He was not friendly. And he said, 'The only reason I'm letting you in is because it's one day under a year.' "
For green card holders, it can feel like there are no good options. Keri Smith, the permanent resident who rode out the pandemic in Canada, says she called the U.S. Consulate in Nova Scotia to ask for advice.
"This person at the consulate said, 'OK, well, if I were you, I would just try to cross over. That seems to be your best bet,' " Smith said. "It feels like a gamble, but we're going to see how it goes."
Smith is a bestselling author who has written several books on creativity, including Wreck This Journal. So she figures she'll be OK no matter what. But she worries about what could happen to other permanent residents who can't afford a good lawyer and can't risk rolling the dice.