The Obama administration has said that it will make it easier for illegal immigrants who are related to a U.S. citizen to seek legal U.S. residency, a rule change praised by immigrant advocates and lambasted by those who favor strict policing of the borders.
According to the current rules, an illegal immigrant must apply for, and receive a legal visa from his or her country of origin to rejoin a spouse or child in the U.S., a process that can sometimes take years. The Obama administration will modify that rule to enable the immigrant to remain in the U.S. for much of the process.
The change is likely to go into effect later this year, administration officials have said.
The administration said it is streamlining the process to make it more humane by minimizing family breakups. But the decision also could affect thousands of illegal immigrants who might qualify for a green card—which confers permanent U.S. residency—but haven't applied because they feared not being allowed back into the U.S. or, at the least, a lengthy separation from family.
"What we have heard from the community is that people eligible don't come forward…because of the uncertainty and unpredictability" of the current process, said Alejandro Mayorkas, director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), a branch of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
The change would "significantly reduce" the time U.S. citizens are separated from immigrant relatives who have been in the U.S. unlawfully", Mr. Mayorkas said.
Illegal immigrants who leave the U.S. are automatically barred from re-entering for at least three years, and usually for a decade. Congress established the waiting period in 1996 to penalize people who had been illegally living in the U.S.
The change would allow illegal immigrants with a spouse or child who are citizens to remain in the country while the government decides whether or not to grant a request for a waiver from this provision, based on "extreme hardship" to a U.S. citizen.
The Obama administration favors creating a path to citizenship for the 12 million illegal immigrants believed to be in the country but, given deep divisions in Congress— and the electorate— over how to change the law, it has been taking steps that don't require congressional approval.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, an outspoken foe of illegal immigration, said the announcement was further proof that "President Obama and his administration are bending long established rules…without a vote of Congress."
Immigrant advocates praised the switch. "The announcement marks another step in DHS's effort to restore rationality to an otherwise broken immigration system," said Angela Kelley, vice president for immigration policy at the Center for American Progress in Washington.