Obama expands ‘hardship’ waiver for illegal immigrants

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The Obama administration on Friday proposed new hardship rules that would make it easier for illegal immigrants to apply for legal status and stay in the country if they have a spouse or parent already living here legally.

Immigrant-rights groups called the move a “tremendous” victory while those who favor a crackdown on illegal immigration said it is another step in what they describe as administrative amnesty.

Homeland Security officials, who announced the change in the Federal Register, said the change only applies when an illegal immigrant has a family member living in the U.S. legally and who would be subject to “hardship” if they were separated from each other.

Under the current system, it takes an average of six months for the government to judge waiver cases, and illegal immigrant applicants are required to go home during that period. The new rule means the illegal immigrant can stay in the U.S. during the adjudication period.

“The goal is to reduce the time of separation and alleviate the extreme hardship to a United States citizen, as the law currently intends,” said Alejandro Mayorkas, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

He said the new rules wouldn’t change who ends up getting legal status, but only lets those who are applying stay in the U.S. while those applications are pending. Those hoping to take advantage would still have to return to their home country to pick up their visa.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, Texas Republican, said Mr. Obama was “bending long-established rules to put illegal immigrants ahead of the interests of American citizens and legal immigrants.”

“Who is the president batting for — illegal immigrants or the American people?” Mr. Smith said.

Under a 1996 law, illegal immigrants who are in the U.S. are barred from coming back to this country for three or 10 years, depending on how long they were here illegally. Congress allowed a waiver, but Mr. Smith said it was intended to be used on a case-by-case basis, not categorically.

Mr. Mayorkas said his agency is not expanding the number of people who would be eligible for waivers, but rather allowing applicants to wait in the U.S. while those waivers are being processed. Under the previous system, they would have had to go home for an average of six months while the waiver was being processed.

His agency received about 23,000 hardship waiver applications in fiscal year 2011, and approved about 17,000 of them.

President Obama has tried to take steps over the last year to ease fears of rank-and-file illegal immigrants that they could be deported, even as his administration steps up its efforts to go after illegal immigrants who have been arrested for other crimes, who are members of gangs or who have multiple immigration violations on their record.

The department reported a record number of deportations in fiscal year 2011, with an ever-higher percentage coming from those targeted categories.

Immigrant-rights groups, however, say the administration is still deporting too many people. Some advocates have called for a halt to all deportations until Congress passes a legalization bill, saying the system is too broken to be enforced.

Still, groups cheered Friday’s announcement, saying it will mean some illegal immigrants who had previously refused to apply for legal status will now do so because they can remain with their families.

“This is a tremendous victory for U.S. families who suffer at the hands of a harsh immigration bureaucracy,” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum.

On the other side, family separation has popped up in the Republican presidential primary, where most candidates argue for more aggressive deportation of illegal immigrants,

Former Sen. Rick Santorum, who has surged in the polls, says on the campaign trail that people trying to follow the system legally separate themselves from their families all the time. He pointed to his grandfather, who came to the U.S. alone and worked for years before sending for his family.

He also said people who break other laws in the U.S. are regularly separated from their families by being sent to prison.

“No one wants to break up a family and send someone to jail. But we’re not sending these people to jail. We’re sending them home,” he said. “We’re giving them an opportunity to eventually come back in this country, if they do so the right way. I don’t see that as harsh. I see that as the reality of how justice works in America.”

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