The Obama administration Friday said it plans to make it easier for some illegal immigrants who are immediate relatives of U.S. citizens to attain a legal right to stay in the country, a move that could affect thousands of people in South Florida.
The current procedures require U.S. citizens to apply for legal status for those relatives and for the undocumented people to leave the U.S. in order to file for waivers that will allow them to become legal residents. It is a process that takes on average six months before they are given an immigrant visa and allowed back into the U.S. If the waiver is denied, the family member could be barred from entering the U.S. for up to 10 years.
Alejandro Mayorkas, director of the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, said Friday that cases occur in which the U.S. citizens suffer "extreme hardship" because their loved ones are forced to leave the country for long periods of time.
He cited the instance of U.S. citizens who are seriously ill and depend on undocumented family members for medical care. Later, in a response to questions from reporters, he said extreme hardship might also be caused by financial issues and other stresses on the family.
The new rules will allow those illegal-immigrant family members to apply for the necessary hardship waivers from inside the U.S. and not be forced to leave the country for long periods while they wait for the waivers to be processed.
"The goal is to reduce the time of separation and alleviate extreme hardship to U.S. citizens," Mayorkas said.
Some Republicans immediately took aim at the proposed change. GOP lawmakers have said President Obama's changes to immigration policy, without Congressional consent, amount to "backdoor amnesty" for illegal immigrants.
Friday, U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and a frequent critic of immigration policy, accused the president of putting the interests of illegal immigrants ahead of those of Americans.
"It seems President Obama plays by his own rules to push unpopular policies on the American people," Smith said.
Conservative commentators were also framing the new policy as a way for the Obama administration to court favor with Latino voters leading up to the November election.
It is the second time in a matter of months that the administration has made changes in immigration policy that were applauded by immigrant advocates and by many people in the Latino community.
Late last year, the administration announced that it would review 300,000 deportation cases currently in the pipeline and postpone the deportation of many people who are not criminals and are believed to pose no threat to society.
The new waiver policy, which Mayorkas said he hopes will take effect this year, would apply only to the spouses and children of U.S. citizens, not siblings. It would also be restricted to undocumented people whose only issue with U.S. law is that they are in the country illegally. No person who has been convicted of a crime or has other legal issues will be covered by the new rule.
While the waivers will now be applied for from inside the U.S. once their cases come up and they are granted the waivers, the illegal immigrants will still have to leave the U.S., go to a U.S. consulate and apply for an actual immigrant visa.
But once the person is interviewed in a consulate, the visa will in most cases be issued in short order.
"It will not be months, it will be days or weeks," Mayorkas said. "The period of separation is significantly reduced."
He said statutes call for immigration law to be applied in a way that avoids extreme hardship to U.S., citizens and that the rule change is intended "to better serve the goals of the present law."
Mayorkas said that last year, 23,000 applications for hardship waivers were received by Citizenship and Immigration Services and 17,000 were granted. But Boynton Beach immigration attorney Richard Hujber said Friday's announcement will lead to many more people applying.
"A lot of people don't even know these waivers exist," he said. "It was 23,000 last year, but now they are going to be flooded with them."
"A lot of clients come in here, and when they hear they may have to spend months outside the U.S. in order to apply, they lose interest," Hujber said.
There is also the danger that the waiver will be denied and then the person who has been in the U.S. illegally is faced by a penalty period between three and 10 years before they can even apply for a visa again.
"They simply don't want to leave the country and risk that, so they don't apply," Hujber said. "Many more of those persons will apply now. This is going to help a lot of people."
Immigration attorney Aileen Josephs of West Palm Beach also applauded the change.
"This is a good day for America," she said. "Hopefully, in 2012, Congress will finally act in a bipartisan way, to give our nation an immigration system that fosters legal migration and reflects our nation's labor needs."