On January 2, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano announced a new rule which was welcomed by immigrant communities and their advocates. Some unauthorized immigrants who are in the process of obtaining visas for permanent residency can now expect shorter separation from American family members. It is estimated that this latest immigration initiative from the Obama administration could impact as many as 1 million immigrants without proper papers.
Secretary Napolitano said in a statement that this "facilitates the legal immigration process and reduces the amount of time that U.S. citizens are separated from their immediate relatives who are in the process of obtaining an immigrant visa."
Under current law, undocumented spouses, children, and parents of American citizens applying for permanent residency must leave the U.S. to attend an interview for an immigrant visa in their native country. If they have been in the U.S. illegally for more than six months, they are barred from re-entry anywhere from three to ten years which could cause economic, emotional, and psychological distress and strain familial bonds. In order to return, these relatives have to obtain a waiver which they can only apply for after passing an interview. American citizens can thus be separated for many years from immediate family and some immigrants have chosen to remain in the U.S. unlawfully rather than risk a prolonged period apart from loved ones.
The new process, which begins March 4, will allow immigrants who can prove that isolation from their American spouse, child or parent would cause "extreme hardship" to start the application while in the U.S. If approved, applicants will still need to return to their country of origin to pick up their visa but separation is promised to be brief, a matter of weeks not years. The rule does not provide legal status or a shortcut to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants.
Alejandro Mayorkas, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Director, said, "The law is designed to avoid extreme hardship to U.S. citizens, which is precisely what this rule achieves. The change will have a significant impact on American families by greatly reducing the time family members are separated from those they rely upon."
Laura Lichter, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, told The New York Times, "This rule is leaps and bounds better than what we have now. For families that were sitting on the fence, unwilling to subject their loved ones to the uncertainty, now they don't have to wait."
This is another "gift" from the Obama administration which, like the reprieve granted to DREAMers last August, will benefit many immigrants who call America home. This nonetheless does not fix our dilapidated immigration system or solve the matter of 11 million people living in the shadows. And with all the attention given to gun control and the looming deadline to deal with our debt ceiling and federal budget, I can't help but wonder if this is but another palliative to keep immigrant communities and reform advocates at bay until the president gets to immigration reform.