Rainer Jenss offers a cautionary tale for travelers with green cards…
As terrific as my recent visit to Brazil was, it almost didn’t happen. So I’m posting this cautionary tale in the event anyone else runs into the same predicament as I did and needs some guidance.
Because I am a German national and still hold a passport from my mother country, I do not need a visa to enter Brazil. Americans, on the other hand, do, since the United States started applying visa requirements on Brazilians as a result of post-9/11 homeland security measures. This was not always the case, but Brazil has a reciprocal visa policy, meaning they adopt the same measures towards countries that place restrictions on theirs.
Not being a U.S. citizen, however, does mean that I’m required to travel with a green card whenever I leave the country . . . especially if I want to get back in! So the story starts on the JFK Express Bus on my way to the airport. That’s when I realized I’d accidentally left my green card at the house. Without enough time to go home and retrieve it, I had to think fast about what to do. Miss the flight and hope to get on the same one a day later? Or should I risk it and leave the country without it as long as I had it coming back? I could have my wife FedEx it to my hotel in São Paulo. To help me decide, I frantically tried a number of different Google searches on my iPhone, but I couldn’t get a precise answer on what my options were.
When I arrived at JFK, I asked the agents at the TAM Airlines counter for assistance, but no one knew for sure what I should do. All I did know was that I could leave without a green card and since I could safely have it sent overnight, I decided to go that route. Just to make certain I’d be ok, I paid a visit to the airport security office for some additional counsel. After hearing my plan, they recommended I not leave without it in case something unforeseeable went wrong with the FedEx delivery. Losing my green card in the mail would be a worst-case scenario and should be avoided at all costs. That’s when I came up with another strategy. What if my wife comes to JFK to pick me up when I return and gets it to the proper authorities to give to me when I arrive? After some further consultation, the security officers agreed that this might be a safer play. “Good luck,” they shouted as I rushed for the gate.
Fast-forward six days. Even though it had been in the back of my mind throughout the week, I was quite confident all would work out fine. Then when I checked in for my return flight to New York, I abruptly got some official clarification that had eluded me until that point: I needed my green card in able to get on the plane back to the U.S., not just when I went through Immigration. They told me because the airlines are held accountable for travelers entering the country legally, they do not board anyone without proper documentation. Even though I explained my situation and showed them a photocopy of my green card, that wasn’t sufficient. If someone arrives in the U.S.
illegally, I soon learned, it’s the airline’s responsibility to return that person to the country of origin, and in my case, TAM did not want to assume the potential liability, even though I assured them my wife would be at the airport waiting with my proof of legal residency.
In a bit of desperation, I asked if TAM had anyone at JFK who my wife could show my green card to before the plane was scheduled to take off, which was still 2.5 hours away. Luckily, they did and even more fortunately, I got hold of my wife who hastily drove to JFK in time to show the airport manager the green card. This satisfied the officials at TAM, and I was able to get on the flight. After we landed at JFK, the TAM gate agent had the card waiting for me and I got through Passport Control without a hitch.
So take it from my experience, if you do leave the country without your green card and don’t want to rely on a mail carrier to get it to you overseas, make sure to visit the local U.S. consulate for advice. They will be able to assist you, and you won’t end up at the airport scrambling to figure out what to do like I did.
Next week, Rainer resumes his family travel beat. You can follow him on Twitter at @JenssTravel.