Obama administration officials announced on Friday that they will propose a fix to a notorious snag in immigration law that will spare hundreds of thousands of American citizens from prolonged separations from immigrant spouses and children.
The change that immigration officials are offering would benefit United States citizens who are married to or have children who are illegal immigrants. It would correct a bureaucratic Catch-22 that those Americans now confront when their spouses or children apply to become legal permanent residents.
Although the tweak that officials of the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services are proposing appears small, immigration lawyers and advocates for immigrants say it will make a great difference for countless Americans. Thousands will no longer be separated from loved ones, they said, and the change could encourage Americans to come forward to apply to bring illegal immigrant family members into the legal system.
Illegal immigrants who are married to or are children of American citizens are generally allowed under the law to become legal residents with a visa known as a green card. But the law requires most immigrants who are here illegally to return to their home countries in order to receive their legal visas.
The catch is that once the immigrants leave the United States, they are automatically barred from returning to this country for at least three years, and often for a decade, even if they are fully eligible to become legal residents.
The immigration agency can provide a waiver from those tough measures, if the immigrants can show that their absence would cause “extreme hardship” to a United States citizen. But until now, obtaining the waiver was almost as hard and time-consuming as obtaining a green card.
Immigrants had to leave the United States and return to their countries of birth to wait for at least three months and sometimes much longer while the waiver was approved. And sometimes the waivers were not approved, and the immigrants were permanently stranded, separated from their American families.
The journey toward the green card to which they were entitled was so fraught with risks for the illegal immigrants that many families simply decided to live in hiding and not apply.
Now, Citizenship and Immigration Services proposes to allow the immigrants to obtain a provisional waiver in the United States, before they leave for their countries to pick up their visas. Having the waiver in hand will allow them to depart knowing that they will almost certainly be able to return, officials said. The agency is also seeking to sharply streamline the process to cut down the wait times for visas to a few weeks at most.
“The goal is to substantially reduce the time that the U.S. citizen is separated from the spouse or child when that separation would yield an extreme hardship,” said Alejandro Mayorkas, the director of the immigration agency.
On Friday, the agency will publish a formal notice in the Federal Register that it is preparing a new regulation governing the waivers. But agency officials, speaking on condition of anonymity on Thursday before the proposal was formally announced, stressed that this was only the beginning of a long regulatory process that they hoped to complete by issuing a new rule before the end of this year.
The change on how and where these waivers are issued is one example of a number of measures the Obama administration has taken in recent months that do not require the approval of Congress. The steps are designed to ease the burdens on American and immigrant families stemming from dysfunctional or outmoded immigration statutes.
White House officials are resigned to the fact that there will most likely be no progress before the November elections on immigration legislation that President Obama supports that would give legal status to millions of illegal immigrants. They have been looking for ways to help immigrant communities without going through the partisan dissension in Congress.
“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. “There are hundreds of thousands of people who came to the United States illegally who are married to U.S. citizens who have not taken advantage of the waiver that is currently available. This changes their lives.”
“Yay!” said Nancy Kuznetsov, an American citizen and immigration advocate who was separated for more than four years from her husband, Vitali, from Belarus. Ms. Kuznetsov has battled for years for the waiver fix.
“This is a wonderful humane change that recognizes the importance of American citizens,” said Ms. Kuznetsov, vice president of American Families United, an organization of Americans facing struggles with the immigration system.
Keeps families together, gets them here legally, we don't have to wait on Congress to do something it's shown it won't do if it can possibly avoid it.. Hard to see a downside here.