Permanent residents returning from foreign travel to the United States are inspected at ports of entry (POEs) by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers who determine their admissibility. U.S. citizens are automatically admitted upon verification of citizenship. Noncitizens are questioned and their documents are examined to determine admissibility based on the requirements of U.S. immigration law. All noncitizens, including green card holders, bear the burden of proving admissibility and may be searched without a warrant at any POE. Cell phones, laptops and personal property may also be searched.

The normal immigration inspection process is outlined by CBP in this diagram. Permanent residents do not need to produce a Form I-94.

What is secondary inspection? How long does it usually take?

Individuals whose admissibility cannot be immediately decided by a CBP officer at the POE will be directed to a separate interview area for further inspection, also known as secondary inspection. Secondary inspection allows an inspector to look into immigration status and verify identification in detail. A secondary inspection may take from a few minutes to several hours to complete, depending on the complexity of the inspection and the personnel available at the interview facility. Connecting flights may be missed by green card holders required to undergo secondary inspection.

Do I have a right to an immigration attorney during a secondary inspection? Can I ask for an interpreter if I don’t speak English?

Under 8 CFR § 292.5(b), an applicant for admission is not entitled to attorney representation in primary or secondary inspections, unless s/he has become the focus of a criminal investigation and has been taken into custody, or s/he requests asylum in the United States on the basis of credible fear. However, an applicant is entitled to request an interpreter if s/he does not understand English.

What kinds of questions are asked in secondary inspection?

Questions that applicants receive in secondary inspection normally center on the applicant’s identification, maintenance of immigrant status or nonimmigrant status, travel plans and purpose of visiting the United States. Applicants may be challenged regarding any significant absence from the U.S., especially for the purpose of work abroad. Applicants should be prepared to state and document a residence or intending residence and a job or intending job in the U.S. Permanent residents, even those who own property in the U.S., must maintain strong work and family ties to the U.S.

What documents should I bring with me to prove my strong ties to the U.S.?

For green card holders who have spent significant periods of time outside of the U.S., documentation that shows an applicant’s ties to the U.S. should be prepared and presented in secondary inspection. Documentation of this kind includes recent U.S. tax returns, evidence of ownership of a U.S. vehicle or a U.S. house, a letter from a real estate agency establishing a client relationship with the applicant, other major assets, proof of family members residing in the U.S., proof of children attending school in the U.S., a residential lease agreement, and any U.S. employment.

What is deferred inspection?

Deferred inspection is when a CBP officer paroles the applicant into the U.S. and schedules the applicant for a longer interview appearance at a CBP field office in the interior U.S. at a future date. This can occur when an applicant refuses to sign an acknowledgement of abandonment of residency and the CBP inspector chooses a middle road between refusing the applicant entry and admitting the applicant as a permanent resident. A deferred inspection is used to conduct a more comprehensive interview and inspection. The applicant will be given an Order to Appear–Deferred Inspection, stating the date, time and place of the appointment. The appointment could be a few days or a few months after the initial inspection, depending on the backlog at the deferred inspection office that has jurisdiction over the port of entry where the applicant seeks admission. At a deferred inspection, an attorney may be allowed to accompany the applicant at the inspector’s discretion.

What if I am asked to abandon my permanent resident status at the secondary or deferred inspection?

If, upon conclusion of the inspection, a CBP officer decides that an applicant has abandoned his/her green card status, the applicant will be asked to sign Form I-407, Record of Abandonment of Lawful Permanent Resident Status.

In such situations, the applicant should request a hearing before an immigration judge during secondary inspection. In immigration court, the government must prove by clear, unequivocal, and convincing evidence that CPR/LPR status has been lost through abandonment. To request a hearing, an applicant can simply express the following to the inspecting CBP officer: “I do not wish to sign Form I-407 and instead elect to have a hearing before an immigration judge to determine if I have abandoned my green card status or not.”

The CBP officer can then institute removal proceedings and grant parole or nonimmigrant status until the immigration hearing date, or allow the request for admission to be withdrawn.

Even if his/her green card is taken away or s/he signs Form I-407, the applicant may still request a hearing before an immigration judge to decide whether or not his/her green card status has been lost through abandonment.

Summary of returning resident inspection outcomes: 

  1. The applicant withdraws his/her request for admission to the U.S. and returns abroad;
  2. The applicant succeeds at being admitted as a permanent resident, receiving a warning and a passport annotation regarding abandonment or the need for a re-entry permit;
  3. The applicant is temporarily admitted and must attend an immigration court hearing; or
  4. The applicant surrenders his/her green card.