Some illegal immigrants who are immediate relatives of U.S. citizens might not have to spend as much time apart while they process their green cards after a change was announced by the Obama administration.

"The law is designed to avoid extreme hardship to U.S. citizens, which is precisely what this rule achieves," Alejandro Mayorkas, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said Wednesday in a news release.

The change can benefit people such as spouses of citizens who entered the country illegally and have accrued what is known as "unlawful presence."

Under a 1996 law, when seeking legal status these individuals can face a three- or 10-year bar from re-entering the United States based on the time they spent without authorization in the country.

"In the past, people could go down and try to process it at the consulate and get a waiver; however, there's risk in that when you go to the consulate if it's denied you are stuck," said Maurice Goldman, a local immigration attorney.

Under the new process, which goes into effect on March 4, some immediate relatives - including the spouse, parent or minor child of a U.S. citizen - can apply for the waiver in the United States before they have to go back to their country for the immigrant visa interview.

The new rule doesn't affect whether or not the waiver is approved. It only allows the person to stay in the United States while it's being processed and people still have to prove that family separation will cause their American citizen extreme hardship.

Citizenship and Immigration Services received more than 23,000 waiver applications in fiscal year 2011, and completed about 21,000 cases. At the end of the fiscal year, 9,000 cases were pending, according to the department's website.

Overall, the approval rate was 84 percent, and about three-fourths of the cases were processed within six months. About 75 percent of the annual caseload comes from the Ciudad Juárez field office.

People who already have been scheduled for their visa interview or those in deportation proceedings are not eligible to apply unless the case has been administratively closed.

"While it's a step in the right direction, the ultimate solution would be to eliminate the three- and 10-year bars. Those bars are really the incentive to stay in the United States and not leave to start the process," Goldman said.

This is the latest announcement from the Obama administration easing the way for some illegal immigrants.

Last year, the administration announced a program to offer relief from deportation to young people who came to the country as children. As of Dec. 13, nearly 13,000 people had applied for the program in Arizona.

Citizenship and Immigration Services also issued memorandums outlining its deportation priorities, saying it wants to focus on people who pose a threat to national security and have criminal backgrounds.

Contact reporter Perla Trevizo at or at 573-4213. On Twitter: @Perla_Trevizo.