Carry your Green Card at all times: the why and how

The Green Card, originally called the Alien Registration Receipt Card, is a card possessed by non-citizen Lawful Permanent Residents (LPRs) in the United States. You can read about the history and color of the card here and here. The card, first introduced in 1940 as part of the Alien Registration Act of 1940 (aka the Smith Act), carries with it an interesting regulation — those having the card are required to carry it with them at all times. Here’s how the USCIS puts it:

A green card is issued to all permanent residents as proof that they are authorized to live and work in the United States. If you are a permanent resident age 18 or older, you are required to have a valid green card in your possession at all times.

As far as I can make out, there is no obligation to carry documentation of citizenship status with one at all times, nor are non-citizens who are not permanent residents obliged to carry their identifying document (such as the Employment Authorization Document (EAD) card) with them at all times. What accounts for the apparently unique status of the Green Card?

This post explores the origins of the regulation, how it was somewhat practical back in the day, and whether it can still be enforced.

Puzzling aspects of enforcement

Today, enforcement of the Green Card regulation would be difficult because there is no easy way of identifying the category of people who should carry Green Cards (i.e., Lawful Permanent Residents, or LPRs) from:

  • US citizens, who have no legal obligation to carry identifying documentation proving their citizen status, and most of them do not carry around such documentation (a large number of them carry driving licenses or state ID cards but, in many states, these cards do not include information about citizenship or immigration status).
  • Those on authorized non-immigrant statuses, such as short-term business/tourism visas (B1/B2), student visas (F), and temporary worker visas (H). Those whose visas allow for employment do need to have an Employment Authorization Document (EAD) but, as noted above, are not required to carry it with them at all times.

So an obvious problem with enforcing the Green Card regulation is that somebody, asked to produce a Green Card, could simply claim to not be a LPR but instead be a US citizen or authorized under a non-immigrant status. Since those statuses don’t carry any requirement, how can anybody intent on enforcing the Green Card regulation push forward? You could argue that:

  • The Green Card regulation is still helpful in cases where people are trying to access benefits (such as welfare benefits) only eligible to citizens and LPRs. But there aren’t any welfare benefits accessible to LPRs and not to citizens. And in any case, government offices have their own requirement for documentation you are supposed to bring, and being required to carry your Green Card at all times is unnecessary for that purpose.
  • It still doesn’t make sense for a person to lie to an official enforcing the Green Card regulation about whether he or she is a LPR, because the officer can investigate the person and know if he or she is lying. But to the extent this is true, it also renders somewhat superfluous the requirement to always carry the Green Card — if officers can investigate you anyway, why do you need to carry the card?

Current enforcement

Though about half of Green Card holders I personally know are aware of this regulation, many people have been skeptical of whether it can actually be enforced. Here’s what online law resource NOLO has to say:

If you are 18 or older, you do have to carry your green card with you. Section 264(e) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (I.N.A.) requires all lawful permanent residents (LPRs) to have “at all times” official evidence of LPR status.

Failing to have your green card with you is a misdemeanor and if you are found guilty you can be fined up to $100 and put in jail for up to 30 days. (I.N.A. Section 264(e).) A copy is not good enough, because the law does not use the word “copy” or refer to “other evidence” of LPR status.

The official evidence of LPR status that most people eventually receive is an “alien registration receipt card,” also known as Form I-551 or, more commonly, a “green card.” Sometimes, people do not have their green card, but are already LPRs. For example, when somebody first arrives in the U.S. with an immigrant visa, they first receive an “I-551 stamp” in their passport. Weeks later, they receive the actual green card in the mail. In the time before receiving the green card in the mail, the LPR would have to carry his or her passport “at all times” or risk breaking the law.

If you decide to carry a copy of your green card instead of the original because you want to keep the original safe, you will be violating the law. Will you actually be stopped by immigration, prosecuted and fined or jailed for not having your original green card with you? It’s unlikely. Like any other government agency, immigration authorities have limited resources and cannot spend precious government time and money on prosecuting people for not carrying their green card “at all times.”

But there have been cases where LPRs are detained or arrested during workplace enforcement actions for not having their green card on them. So to be on the safe side, and obey the law, you should actually carry your green card with you everywhere you go. And it probably goes without saying that if you will be traveling internationally, you should take your original green card with you to board a plane or boat back to the U.S. and to reenter the U.S. as an LPR.

You might also be interested in discussion of the issue at ImmiHelp, Immigration Road, and Immigration Forums. Here’s an excerpt from the latter:

> When there are 20 million illegals easily walking in the streets of USA we the law abiding ones should not have issues.

When the law says you have to carry it with you and you don’t carry it with you, then how can you be a law abiding one?

I believe you cannot apply the photo-copy-is-okay argument to a green card, like you do for approval notices or certificates. Green card is obviously different with the magnetic stripe and stuff.

If we can say photo-copy is sufficient, then we can logically extend the argument to drivers license and start carrying a xerox copy of our drivers license with us instead of the original.

We have to accept what the law says and have to learn to live with it even though it may not be to our liking.

In an Open Borders Action Group post discussing the issue, it was pointed out that immigration regulations in the United States can only be enforced by federal immigration enforcement authorities, and these are active generally only at airports and close to the border, so in practice this does not affect most people. There is much truth to this, but some important caveats:

Do not ask for whom the bell tolls, for it tolls for thee! If you, or people at your workplace, are non-citizen LPRs of the United States, then a federal immigration raid of your workplace could lead to you or your co-workers getting arrested for a month. Is this likely to happen? Probably not — arresting people for not carrying Green Cards is a “low priority” for the ICE because they have so many bigger fish to fry (such as deporting illegal immigrants). Still, better be careful! The law is the law.

Historical enforcement

The Green Card began after World War II. Althogh the Smith Act was passed in 1940, cards began to be issued only after the War. 1950 saw an important step in the formal codification of the idea that non-citizens had a burden of proof of responsibility in maintaining documentation to demonstrate legal status. As Citizen Path puts it:

The Internal Security Act of 1950 increased the value of Form 151, Alien Registration Receipt Card. Effective April 17, 1951, aliens holding AR-3 cards could replace them with a new Form I-151. However, only those with legal status could replace their AR-3. What’s more, aliens who could not prove their legal admission into the United States were subject to prosecution for violating U.S. immigration laws.

As a result, the Form I-151 card represented security to its holder. It indicated the right to live and work in the United States permanently and instantly communicated that right to law enforcement officials. Because of the card’s cumbersome official name – Alien Registration Receipt Card – immigrants, attorneys, and INS workers came to refer to it by its color, calling it the “green card.”

So having a Green Card was a way of getting around an otherwise capricious and uncertain law enforcement process. Mandating that people carry it could be considered a form of libertarian paternalism — nudging people in the direction of doing something they should want to do anyway.

Historically, the Green Card regulation was important because of two salient differences with the present.

First, in response to the present difficulty of distinguishing between citizens and non-citizen LPRs: a foreign-born person in the United States could not be a citizen unless that person was “white” (as defined by the Naturalization Act of 1790) or of African ancestry (this change was made in the Naturalization Act of 1870, as part of the process of post-Civil War rectification of racial injustice). Note that birthright citizenship existed even for people of other races and ethnicities, but the foreign-born of these races were not formally eligible for (or at least had no official process for) acquiring citizenship. This would change with the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. But it does mean that back in the day, if somebody looked neither white nor black, you could have high confidence the person wasn’t a US citizen. (It was still conceivable the person was born in the US and therefore a US citizen, but given that this was about a decade after the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1924, that effectively closed the US border to Asians and East Europeans, there would be very few children of immigrants among the population anyway).

So, back in the day, ethnicity as a statistical discriminator allowed almost all US citizens to avoid getting harassed by immigration enforcement (and the few who did get harassed were anyway from an ethnic group that didn’t enjoy a lot of broad support and sympathy). Thus, the regulation was enforcible.

What about my second point about the difficulty of current enforcement, i.e., the fact that people on temporary statuses aren’t required to carry documentation at all times? It’s important to remember that the landscape of temporary statuses and related regulations has changed a lot since that time. The H visas, including the H-1B and the H-2, didn’t exist back then — they were created by the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. There did exist a Bracero Program for temporary agricultural labor, and deportation also started becoming a systematic operation with Operation Wetback. The primarily Mexican people in these situations may not have been required to carry green cards, but they had bigger problems and fewer legal protections overall.

Why hasn’t the regulation been repealed?

If the requirement to carry a Green Card is no longer practical to enforce, why is it still on the books? This is best understood in terms of the principle that laws are hard to repeal, particularly if they give power and authority to vested interests in government. Even if immigration enforcement officials do not generally use this regulation, the existence of this regulation gives them more power — power that they can use as and when they see fit. In general, any source of power will be liked by those wielding it, and they will not easily give up.

This ratchet effect is observed everywhere, but is particularly likely in situations where the people enforcing the law do not have direct accountability to the people affected. Non-citizens can’t vote, so getting rid of clauses that could be used against them doesn’t have a strong political constituency.

Featured image credit: Jason Scott, licensed under CC-BY 2.0, via Flickr

UPDATE: Rob Zidar writes in with a personal anecdote:

I’ve been here legally (from Canada – my wife is American) for 25 years. My last GC renewal took 1.5 years, 5 trips to Newark and I was actually illegal for a few weeks between extensions. The reason for the snafu was primarily that when I originally went in for the renewal, my card was cracked from having been in my wallet for 10 years. Because it was cracked, the would not put a sticker on it to serve as the normal extension. I had to apply for a separate in-person meeting to request an extension, which took weeks. Months later, my replacement card was lost in the mail (I’m guessing it was stolen) and the window for my fingerprints being valid had expired. I had to restart the whole application process.

I understand that it is a law that people carry their GC at all times, but I think the law is unpractical and probably toothless. I’ll keep mine with my passport in a safe place from now on.

8 thoughts on “Carry your Green Card at all times: the why and how”

  1. Thanks for highlighting the importance. I did not realize how imperative it is to carry the green card at all times. How is for the non permanent residence? Do they also have to apply for the green card separately? Was planning to apply for it in a couple of months and going to contact solicitor Matthew Jeffery for the same.

  2. Frankly people would have no problem carrying green cards if, like a driver’s license, it could be replaced in a week at a cost of $20.

    But replacement green cards cost $450 and take six months. That’s ridiculous! Even a US passport is cheaper and takes less time to issue!

  3. This is good to know. I am a LPR and do carry my GC with me at all times. I didnt know I had to though, but since I live in San Diego and we have border checkpoints on all the interstate freeways a bit outside of the city, so I do get stopped all the time. Also many check points on smaller local roads. They are mostly looking for illegal immigrants, and as a blonde white guy with two kids, they usually just waive me by, while stopping all Hispanic looking people. Sad but true. Every now and then they do ask me for my card, and I am glad to have it. Definitely carry it you live or travel close to the border.

  4. I am not carrying my Greencard with me because I don’t trust the immigration to replace it in a timely matter and also the high cost of replacement. When I originally applied for my permanent card it took me 7+ years to get the permanent because somehow first the immigration claimed I never gave back the old one (I did, since I was physically in the immigration office) then the story went to I am not in the system, we involved our congress man and he really tried to help us but ran into stone walls after 3 years and gave up (too much of a story to tell) then we moved to NC, I already had given up to ever get it back but a friend urged me to try the immigration office there and the officer at the counter took the code stamp from my passport, typed it in and miraculously there was my file. I already had 3 kids, American kids at that time and was married 10 years.
    Then at a years later my Greencard was stolen with my purse in a movie theater, it cost me lot’s of headache and 1+ year to get it back because of the immigration
    ….yup and when I originally applied, I did it on suggestion of the immigration in Frankfurt so I could see my mom I hadn’t seen in years, they told me it would take max 2 months if i do at at embassy, if i do it in L.A. I might not be able to leave for a year or more (my husband had a six week paid trip from company for training) and I was stuck there with my son for 5 months, with my American husband getting his company and representative involved to get me back in.
    Somehow I think I must be on a special list to be specially treated 😉
    So no, I definitely won’t carry that with me around….I have no trust in the immigration’s ability to do their job right. I’ve had a immigration nightmare, ever since I started, which ruined so much in my life and the live of my kids who could never see their German relatives and have no connections to Germany because I was not able to bring them there when they were younger, being stuck in the US.

  5. I liked that you said that one thing to consider when you are an immigrant or citizen of the United States is to carry proof that you are in the country legally at all times in order to ensure that you won’t get in trouble with the law. I have been thinking about gaining citizenship in more than just one country but I have been worried that I will end up getting in trouble. I would be sure to carry my citizenship records with me at all times so that I would be able to prove to any authority that I was in that specific country legally at any time.

  6. Ok So that’s why it is very essential to carry your green card all the time. One immigration lawyer helped me get US greencard, dygreencard inc. Very elaborative article please keep updating us..

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