01/03/2013 02:55 pm ET

Obama Administration Tweeks Immigration Rules, Reducing Family Separation

Immigration reform advocates are hailing a decision by the Obama administration that will cut down on family separation.

The Obama administration said Wednesday it will stop requiring some undocumented immigrants to return to their countries of origin to apply for a visa. To qualify, applicants must have U.S. citizens in their immediate families, a clean criminal record and must show that their families would suffer extreme hardship without them.

"We're hopeful that all of this portends a bigger improvement to the immigration system," Lisa Koop, a managing attorney with the Chicago-based National Immigrant Justice Center, told The Chicago Tribune.

Previously, those applying for a U.S. immigrant visa who had entered illegally were required to return to their country of origin and were not allowed to enter to the United States for three to 10 years. Under the new rules, undocumented immigrants must return to their country of origin to pick up the visa, but don’t have to wait to return.

The change, which takes effect March 4, could affect hundreds of thousands of people, The New York Times reports.

Some 24,780 people applied for hardship waivers last fiscal year, according to The Los Angeles Times. Now that the rules don’t require undocumented immigrants seeking waivers to return to their country of origin for several years, more people are expected to apply.

The new policy angered advocates of stricter immigration laws, who accused Obama of bypassing the country’s dysfunctional Congress -- a criticism he also faced in June when the president told the Department of Homeland Security to use prosecutorial discretion to defer deportation for most immigrants brought to the country illegally as children.

The White House plans to push forward with comprehensive immigration reform this month.



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