WASHINGTON - The Obama administration is proposing to make it easier for illegal immigrants who are family members of American citizens to apply for legal permanent residency.
On Monday, the Department of Homeland Security will post for public comment an administrative change intended to reduce the time illegal immigrants would have to spend away from their families while applying for legal status, officials said. The current system requires the applicant to first leave the U.S. to seek a legal visa, but under the proposed change illegal immigrants could claim the time apart from a spouse, child or parent would create "extreme hardship" and allow them to remain in the U.S. as they begin the process.
Once approved, the person would be required to briefly leave the country to pick up the legal visa abroad.
Currently, families are often separated for several months as they await resolution of their applications. The change could reduce that time apart to one week in some cases, officials said. The White House hopes the new procedures could be in place by the end of the year.
David Leopold, a Cleveland attorney and past president of the American Immigration Lawyers Assn., called the change a "minor processing tweak, but it has great value to families."
Unable to pass comprehensive immigration reform laws through a polarized Congress, the proposal is the latest in a series of changes the White House is making to immigration procedures that are designed to focus the efforts of prosecutors and immigration judges on the removal of illegal immigrants who pose a threat to public safety or are repeat immigration law violators.
Republicans say President Obama is making an end run around Congress.
"President Obama and his administration are bending long established rules to put illegal immigrants ahead of the interests of American citizens," said Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas. "It seems President Obama plays by his own rules."
U.S. immigration officials responded that the change affects only how the applications are processed, not whether the legal status ultimately is granted.
"I don't think that criticism is warranted at all," said Alejandro Mayorkas, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. "What we are doing is reducing the time of separation, not changing the standard of obtaining a waiver."
Without a "hardship waiver," an immigrant who has overstayed a visa for more than six months is barred from re-entering the U.S. for three years. A person who overstayed their visa for more than a year is barred from the country for 10 years. The penalties deter many illegal immigrants from seeking legal status.
Immigration officials do not know how many of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. would qualify for a waiver, Mayorkas said. Experts said that more than 1 million people could benefit from the changes.
In the past year, the White House has given new discretion to prosecutors to ignore immigration violators who have strong ties to the U.S. and no criminal record. A program intended to cull so-called "low priority" cases from immigration courts began in Denver and Baltimore early this year and is being expanded to six other cities across the U.S. over the next four months, including Los Angeles and San Francisco.
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