Plan to fix US green card snag will help thousands

Sat, Jan 7, 2012, 00:00

OBAMA ADMINISTRATION officials say 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 US 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.

Many thousands of citizens will no longer be separated from loved ones, they said, and the change could also encourage many – perhaps hundreds of thousands – of 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 US 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 the 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 US 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 US 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 leave knowing they will almost certainly be able to return, officials said. The agency is also seeking to streamline the process to cut the wait times for visas to a few weeks at most.

“The goal is to substantially reduce the time that the US 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 anonymously 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 US 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 Barack 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.

– ( New York Timesservice)

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