The Obama Administration has proposed a fix to a Catch-22 in the nation’s immigration law that could spare hundreds of thousands of Caribbean and other citizens from prolonged separations from their spouses and children.
Alejandro Mayorkas, director of the Citizenship and Immigration Services, said on Jan. 6 that the primary reasons behind the change are to relieve burdens on naturalized American citizens while also streamlining what has been described as a “convoluted, costly process.”
“We are achieving a system efficiency, saving resources for the taxpayers and reducing the time of separation between a spouse or child and the U.S. citizen relative,” he said.
Mayorkas said the proposed change addresses the procedures by which illegal Caribbean and other immigrants with American family members apply for legal residency, or green cards. It permits the family member to get the status change in the U.S. rather than in the immigrant’s home country.
But while the agency has published a formal notice in The Federal Register that it was preparing a new regulation, Mayorkas said the initiative was only the beginning of a long process his agency hopes to complete by issuing a new rule before the end of this year.
Under current immigration law, U.S. citizens are entitled to apply for green cards for immigrant spouses and children, even those who entered the country illegally. But the law requires most to return to their home countries to receive their visas.
The catch is that once the immigrants leave the U.S., they are automatically prohibited from returning for at least three years and often for a decade, even if they are fully eligible to become legal residents.
The Citizenship and Immigration Services can provide a waiver from those bars, if the immigrants can show that their absence would cause “extreme hardship” to a United States citizen.
But for the past decade, obtaining the waiver was almost as difficult and time-consuming as getting the green card, immigration lawyers say.
Immigrants had to return to their countries to wait while the waiver was approved. Waiting times extended to months, even years. Sometimes waivers were not approved, and immigrants were permanently separated from their American families, the lawyers say.
The journey toward green cards for which they were eligible was so risky that many families simply decided to live in hiding and not apply.
Though the new regulatory tweak appears small, immigration lawyers, however, said it would mean that many naturalized Americans will no longer be separated for months or years from family members pursuing legal residency.
Even more citizens could be encouraged to come forward to bring illegal immigrant relatives into the system, they said.
The move has been greeted with unusually broad praise from immigration lawyers and groups, which have been critical of the high rate of deportations under President Obama.
Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights in Los Angeles, called it a “welcome rational solution to a simple problem” that will mean “thousands upon thousands of families will remain together.”