Moving yet again to streamline the immigration process, the Obama administration on Friday proposed new hardship rules to make it easier for illegal immigrants to apply for legal status and stay in the country if they have a family member who is here legally.
It's the latest in a series of moves President Obama and his team have made to ease the burden for illegal immigrants in the U.S., and immigrant-rights groups cheered it as a "tremendous" victory, while those who favor a crackdown said it is another step in what they describe as an ever-expanding de facto 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 who would be subject to "hardship" if they are 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 rule wouldn't change who ends up getting legalization, but only lets those who are applying stay in the U.S. while their applications are pending. Those hoping to take advantage would still have to return to their home country to pick up their visa.
Rep. Lamar Smith, Texas Republican and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, 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 the U.S. for three or 10 years, depending on how long they were here illegally. Congress allowed a waiver for hardship cases, 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 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.
Immigrant-rights groups hailed 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 deportation of illegal immigrants,
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who has surged in the polls, has said 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 jail or 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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