Obama Changes Immigration Rule

Families With Citizens Can Stay Together, Get Undocumented Relatives Waivers

President Barack Obama. Jim Bourg-Pool/Getty Images News/Getty Images

The Obama administration started 2012 with an important rule change that will reduce the time that the spouses and children of undocumented immigrants are separated from their citizen relatives while applying for legal status.

Latino and Hispanic groups, immigration lawyers and immigrant advocates praised the move.

The change eliminates the requirement that illegal immigrants leave the United States for long periods before they can ask the government to waive its ban on legally re-entering the U.S. The ban typically lasts 3-to-10 years, depending on how long the undocumented immigrant has stayed in the United States without the government’s permission.

The new rule would allow family members of U.S. citizens to petition the government for the so-called hardship waiver before the undocumented immigrant returns home to formally apply for a U.S. visa. Once waivers are approved, immigrants can apply for green cards.

The net effect of the change is that families will not endure long separations while immigration officials are reviewing their cases. Separations that lasted years now will take only weeks or less. Only immigrants without criminal records can apply for the waiver.

Before the change, applications for hardship waivers could takes as long as six months to process. Immigration officials believe that the processing time could drop to a matter of days once the change takes effect. Under the old rules, the government received about 23,000 hardship applications in 2011 from families that faced separations. About 70% were granted.

Because the administration is changing an administrative rule and not U.S. law, the move does not require the approval of Congress.

Alejandro Mayorkas, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services director, said the move underscores “the Obama Administration’s commitment to family unity and administrative efficiency” and will save taxpayers money. He said the change would increase the “predictability and consistency of the application process.”

The American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) applauded the change and said it “will give countless American families a chance to stay together safely and legally.”

Hard numbers are difficult to get, but based on census data and anecdotal evidence, hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens are married to undocumented immigrants, many of them Mexican and Latin American. Many of those families are likely now to come forward and stop living in the shadows.

“Although this is just a small part of dealing with the dysfunction of our immigration system, it represents a significant change in the process for many individuals,” said Eleanor Pelta, the AILA president. “It’s a move that will be less destructive to families and bring about a fairer and more streamlined waiver process.”

Pelta said she knows of applicants who have been killed while waiting for approval in dangerous Mexican border cities that are riddled with violence. “The adjustment to the rule is important because it literally saves lives,” she said.

The National Council of La Raza, the nation’s most prominent Latino civil rights group, praised the change, calling it “sensible and compassionate.”

Republicans criticized the rule change as politically motivated and further weakening of U.S. law.

Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, said the president had “granted back-door amnesty” to potentially millions of illegal immigrants.

Latino and Hispanic groups have criticized the Obama administration for aggressively pursuing deportations during its first three years. A solid majority of Hispanic voters has favored Obama in election polls taken during 2011, though many of these same voters have expressed disapproval of his deportation policies.

Obama won two-thirds of the Latino vote in 2008, and it figures to be the country’s fastest-growing voting bloc for the 2012 elections. Latino voters are especially critical in swing states such as Florida, Colorado and Nevada.

Obama had campaigned on implementing a comprehensive immigration reform plan during his first term. But he said problems with the worsening U.S. economy and stormy relations with Congress forced him to postpone plans for immigration reform.

In 2011, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the administration would use more discretion before deporting undocumented immigrants. The aim is to concentrate on immigrants will criminal records rather than those who have violated only immigration laws.