Obama administration officials announced Friday that they are proposing a fix to a Catch-22 in immigration law that could spare hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens from prolonged separations from immigrant spouses and children.
Although the regulatory tweak appears small, lawyers said it would mean that many Americans will no longer be separated for months or years from family members pursuing legal residency. Even more citizens could be encouraged to come forward to bring illegal immigrant relatives into the system, they said.
The move was greeted with unusually broad praise from immigration lawyers and immigrant and Latino groups, which have been critical of the high rate of deportations under President Barack Obama.
The fix is one of a number of recent measures by the administration that do not require the approval of Congress. White House officials have been seeking ways to shore up sagging support for the president, particularly amongLatinos.
In essence, officials at Citizenship and Immigration Services are proposing to change the procedures by which illegal immigrants with U.S. family members apply for legal residency - getting a document known as a green card - allowing a crucial early step to take place in the United States rather than in the immigrant's home country.
Alejandro Mayorkas, the director of the agency, said the purpose was to relieve burdens on citizens while also streamlining a convoluted, costly process.
"We are achieving a system efficiency, saving resources for the taxpayers and reducing the time of separation between a spouse or child and the U.S. citizen relative," Mayorkas said.
On Friday, the agency published a formal notice in The Federal Register that it was preparing a new regulation. But Mayorkas stressed that step was only the beginning of a long process the agency hopes to complete by issuing a new rule before the end of this year.
Many applaud change
The applause from lawyers, Latinos and immigrant organizations was a strikingly different message than the administration has heard for many months.
Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights in Los Angeles, called it a "welcome rational solution to a simple problem" that will mean "thousands upon thousands of families will remain together."
"This will open up a huge door to bring a large number of people into the light," said Charles Kuck, an immigration lawyer in Atlanta who is a former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
Based on their caseloads and census data, lawyers estimate that many hundreds of thousands of Americans are married to illegal immigrants.
The new process
Under the law, U.S. citizens are entitled to apply for green cards for immigrant spouses and children, even those who entered the country illegally. But the law requires most to return to their home countries to receive their visas.
The catch is that once the immigrants leave the U.S., they are automatically barred from returning for at least three years and often for a decade, even if they are fully eligible to become legal residents.
Citizenship and Immigration Services can provide a waiver from those bars, if the immigrants can show that their absence would cause "extreme hardship" to a U.S. citizen. But for the past decade, obtaining the waiver was almost as difficult and time-consuming as getting the green card.
Immigrants had to return to their countries to wait while the waiver was considered. Waiting times extended to months, even years. Sometimes waivers were not approved, and immigrants were permanently separated from their U.S. families.
The journey toward green cards for which they were eligible was so risky that many families simply decided to live in hiding and not apply.
Now Citizenship and Immigration Services proposes to allow illegal immigrants to get a waiver in the U.S. before they leave to pick up their visas. Having the waiver in hand will allow them to depart knowing they almost certainly will be allowed to return, officials said. The agency is seeking to cut down wait times for immigrants overseas to only a few weeks.
Opposition to plan
Republicans criticized the move as an effort by Obama to circumvent Congress. Lamar Smith, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, called it "an abuse of administrative powers." Smith was an author of legislation in 1996 that created the three- and 10-year bars to return by illegal immigrants.
Mark Krikorian, president of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates tighter immigration controls, said the administration is circumventing Congress to please Hispanic voters during an election year.
Krikorian said the rule change could encourage marriage fraud by taking the risk out of applying for a waiver. "There's a reason to make people leave the country when they're applying," he told The Washington Post. "If they get turned down, they've already deported themselves."