Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified the agency that processes immigration waiver requests. It is U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, not the State Department. This version has been corrected.
The Obama administration announced plans Friday to significantly shorten the time that illegal immigrants would have to spend away from their U.S. citizen spouses or parents while seeking legal status.
Currently, illegal immigrants must leave the United States for three to 10 years before applying for legal entry, depending on how long they have been in the country illegally. Tens of thousands apply each year for a waiver to that rule. But they must still return to their home countries while waiting for the U.S. government to decide on the request.
The waivers are granted to immigrants without criminal records who can prove that their absence would cause “extreme hardship” for their U.S. citizen spouse or parent. Last year, 23,000 people applied, and 17,000 were granted.
The procedural change would allow spouses and children of U.S. citizens to stay in the United States while the government decides whether to issue a waiver, significantly shortening the time families are separated. Immigrants would still need to return to their country to apply for a visa once the waiver is granted.
The rules would not change regarding who is eligible to apply.
The proposal, posted Friday to the Federal Register, is slated to take effect this year.
Advocates say the change will save time and money, taking pressure off U.S. consular offices abroad that now must adjudicate the requests and send documents back and forth to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to process them. Waiver applications currently take six months to a year to process, though some can take longer.
“We have seen cases of extreme hardship where the time of separation is quite lengthy and where that length of time results in an enduring hardship,” said Alejandro Mayorkas, director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Under the new procedure, he said, “it will not be months; it will be days or weeks.”
The rule change could encourage more illegal immigrants to pursue legal status, said David Leopold, a Cleveland immigration lawyer and past president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
Leopold said families frequently ask how long they will be separated if they apply for the waiver.
“You can’t give them an answer, and you’re telling them to separate,” he said, adding that applicants are often sent back to dangerous places such as Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, for lengthy stays.
Once the change goes through, Leopold said,“I think those folks are going to come forward to legalize because they can do their waiver time sitting at home with their family and being together, and that’s why this little processing change is huge.”
Mark Krikorian, president of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates tighter immigration controls, said the administration is circumventing Congress to please Hispanic voters during an election year.
Krikorian said the rule change could encourage marriage fraud by taking the risks out of applying for a waiver. “There’s a reason to make people leave the country when they’re applying,” he said. “If they get turned down, they’ve already deported themselves.”
The rule change, he said, “presupposes the approval of all applicants — and if you don’t get it, you just go back to what you were doing.”