Long Stints Abroad May Put Foreign Workers’ Status at Risk

By Sheree Curry

Feb. 1, 2005

Foreign nationals who are in the United States on permanent resident status are eligible to apply for citizenship once certain conditions are met. However, those who end up on assignment abroad, whether back in their home country or elsewhere, before becoming an American citizen could be putting their chances for U.S. citizenship in jeopardy.

    A person with a green card has permanent resident status in the United States, and as long as they continue to intend to reside here permanently, they keep their status, says Diane Butler, an immigration attorney at Lane Powell PC in Seattle. “The problem with sending them abroad for extended periods of time is it looks like they have given up their status in the United States,” Butler says.

    If the foreign national wants to return to the United States to live and work at some point, they have to maintain the image that they are intending to come back. “And in my experience,” Butler says, “100 percent of the foreign-born who are being transferred would rather stay [in the United States] unless they are certain they will be able to come back [to the United States]. Even if they never do (return), they prefer to know they have that option.”

    Human resources professionals need to educate their nonresident employees on understanding the implications of an overseas assignment, says Stéphane Brahy, the Chicago-based director of intercultural management training for Cendant Mobility.

    There are several pieces of advice human resources professionals can give their foreign-national employees who wish one day to return to the United States without having to repeat paperwork filled out years earlier. Here are a few tips from immigration attorneys that human resources can give employees.

    Employees should continue paying U.S. taxes. “If they claim to be a nonresident to reduce tax liability, they will jeopardize their green-card eligibility,” says Angelo Paparelli of Paparelli & Partners LLP in Irvine, California. Also, they should keep club dues current. “Do not resign from club memberships–and maybe buy a burial plot. They have to maintain an image that they will be coming back within a certain period of time.”

    Butler says human resources departments should advise the employee who has permanent resident status to obtain a re-entry permit before they go abroad for an extended stay. “The permit shows that at the time they left they were planning on returning,” she says.

    These employees should maintain ties to the States and also make a couple of trips back per year. “Although it is not enough to just come back every six months,” Paparelli says. When the employee does come, Butler adds, he or she should stay a couple of weeks and look after their interests in America.

    Harry Shum, co-managing director of MSR Asia, who has been working in Hong Kong for Microsoft for about five years after spending a couple of years at the Redmond, Washington, campus, makes a couple trips a year back to the United States. He and his wife also made a special return visit so that his second child could be born in America.

    Although it’s tough for many families to do, Butler suggests that when possible, an employee should even leave his or her spouse and children back in the United States. “That definitely shows your intent to return,” she says.

    A 2004 Cendant Mobility survey of 548 global employees from 43 different countries reports that 75 percent of companies are doling out sufficient information about visa status and tax compliance. But, Paparelli says, human resources departments shouldn’t handle the issue alone. The legal department should be consulted as well.

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