WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is proposing to make it easier for illegal immigrants who are immediate family members of American citizens to apply for permanent residency, a move that could affect as many as 1 million of the estimated 11 million immigrants living illegally here.
The new rule, which the Department of Homeland Security will post for public comment Monday, will reduce the time illegal immigrants are separated from their American families while seeking legal status, immigration officials said. Currently, such immigrants must leave the country to apply for a legal visa, often leading to long stints away.
The proposal is the latest move by the administration to use its executive powers to revise immigration procedures without changing the law. It reflects an effort by President Barack Obama to improve his standing among Latino voters who feel he has not met his 2008 campaign promise to pursue comprehensive immigration reform.
The president's push to pass the DREAM Act, a law that would have created a path to citizenship for young illegal immigrants enrolled in college or enlisted in the military, was defeated in the Senate in December. Meanwhile, the United States has deported record numbers of illegal immigrants under Obama.
Many immigrants who might seek legal status do not pursue it out of fear they will not receive a "hardship waiver" of strict U.S. immigration laws: An illegal immigrant who has overstayed a visa for more than six months is barred from re-entering the United States for three years; those who overstay more than a year are barred for 10 years.
The revised rule would allow illegal immigrants to claim that time apart from a spouse, child or parent who is a U.S. citizen would create "extreme hardship," and would permit them to remain in the country as they apply for legal status. Once approved, applicants would be required to leave the U.S. briefly, simply to return to their native country and pick up their visa.
The change could reduce a family's time apart to one week in some cases, officials said.