WASHINGTON — 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 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. Immigrants would still need to return to their country to apply for a visa once the waiver is granted.
The waiver shift is the latest move by President Barack Obama to make changes to immigration policy without congressional action. Congressional Republicans have criticized the administration for policy changes they describe as providing "backdoor amnesty" to illegal immigrants.
The proposal also comes as Obama gears up for a re-election contest in which the support of Hispanic voters could prove a determining factor in a number of states. The administration hopes to change the rule later this year after taking public comments.
Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, on Friday accused Obama 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," the House Judiciary Committee chairman said.
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. State Department 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."
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.