WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration proposed a rule change Friday to reduce the time that undocumented immigrant spouses and children are separated from their American relatives while they try to gain legal status in the United States.
Currently, many undocumented immigrants must leave the country before they can ask the government to waive a three- to 10-year ban on legally coming back to the U.S. The length of the ban depends on how long they have lived in the U.S. without permission.
The new rule would let children and spouses of citizens ask the government to decide on the waiver request before they head to their home country to apply for a visa.
Immigration advocates, including the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR), cheered the Obama plan.
Under current procedures, relatives in many cases need to pursue their applications in their native countries—but may mean being barred from returning to the U.S. for up to 10 years if they leave. Waivers to the rule can be requested, but the waiver can only requested after they leave the U.S. If the waiver is denied, the immigrants are trapped outside the U.S., away from their families.
“These families face a heart-breaking dilemma,” said ICIRR executive director Joshua Hoyt. “Do the immigrants proceed with getting their permanent status, but separate from their families for up to 10 years—or do they remain in the U.S, with their families but remain vulnerable to immigration detention and deportation?”
The Obama Administration is proposing a regulation that would enable these immigrants to apply and get decisions for their applications for hardship waivers before they leave the U.S., and have assurance that when they leave, they can soon return.
“Once this change becomes final, families will know that they will not need to face long-term separation and will eventually all be together in the U.S. legally,” said Hoyt.
The waiver shift is the latest move by President Barack Obama to make changes to immigration policy without congressional action. Congressional Republicans repeatedly have criticized the administration for policy changes they describe as providing “backdoor amnesty” to undocumented immigrants.
The proposal also came as Obama gears up for a re-election contest in which the support of Hispanic voters could prove a determining factor in a number of states. The administration hopes to change the rule later this year after taking public comments.
Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, on Friday accused the president putting the interests of immigrants ahead of those of Americans.
“It seems President Obama plays by his own rules to push unpopular policies on the American people,” the House Judiciary Committee chair said in a statement.
Immigrants who do not have criminal records and who have only violated immigration laws can win a waiver if they can prove their absence would cause an extreme hardship for their American spouse or parent. The government received about 23,000 hardship applications in 2011 and more than 70 percent were approved.
It currently takes about six months for the government to issue a waiver, said Alejandro Mayorkas, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Immigrant advocates have long complained about the current system, which can split up families for months or years. And since there’s no guarantee a person will win a waiver to return, many immigrant families refuse to take the risk of going abroad to apply for one.
“We are pleased with this announcement since it is common sense solution to a problem that causes families to be separated,” said Raul Godinez, a board member for CARECEN, the Central American Resource Center.
“We advocate for family unity and know that the American people do not want to see children separated from their parents.”
Laura Barajas, a 42-year-old stay-at-home mom in Orange County, Calif., is due to travel to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, in two weeks to try to get her papers. She and her U.S. citizen husband are trying to stay positive, but she is afraid to leave him and their two young children behind.
“I don’t want to be separated for a long time from my children,” said Barajas, who came to the U.S. illegally to find work to support her parents and siblings then met her future husband and stayed. “I’m not going to risk taking them to a place that I don’t even know after 18 years.”
Immigration has become a difficult issue for Obama ahead of the November election. As a presidential candidate, he pledged to change what many consider to be a broken immigration system.
To that end, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced plans last year to review some 300,000 pending deportation cases in an effort to target criminal illegal immigrants, repeat immigration law violators and those who pose a national security or public safety threat.
Napolitano said the DHS would delay indefinitely the cases of many illegal immigrants who have no criminal record and those who have been arrested for only minor traffic violations or other misdemeanors.
A pilot program to review about 12,000 cases pending in immigration court in Baltimore and Denver was launched in November and ends next week. The review is expected to expand to other jurisdictions later this year.
While the Administration’s proposal may eventually help families, it does not by itself change any existing legal standards, and does not entitle anyone to legal status or create any new program to apply for one. “Do not believe anyone who tells you that they can get you a green card now based on this announcement,” warned ICIRR policy director Fred Tsao. “This announcement is only the first step in changing a complicated process—it does not change anything yet.”
Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton also issued a memo in June outlining how immigration authorities could use discretion in deciding which illegal immigrants to arrest and put into deportation proceedings.
Morton wrote in the memo that discretion could be used in a variety of cases, including for people with no criminal record and young people brought to the country illegally as children.
Congressional Republicans have decried the policy changes, arguing that the Obama administration is circumventing Congress to essentially provide amnesty to countless illegal immigrants.
Several attempts at an immigration law overhaul have failed in recent years, including the so-called DREAM Act, which would have allowed for some young illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children to earn legal status if they went to college or joined the military.
Taxin reported from Santa Ana, Calif. Associated Press Writer Alicia Caldwell in Washington and Kathy Mulady, Equal Voice News reporter, contributed to this report.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.