WASHINGTON – The Obama administration wants to more quickly reunite Americans with their illegal immigrant spouses and children in a move long sought by advocates but panned by Republicans as a way to push unpopular policies around Congress.
Currently, many illegal immigrants must leave the country before they can ask the federal government to waive a three- to 10-year ban on legally coming back to the U.S. The length of the ban depends on how long they have lived in the U.S. without permission.
On Friday, the Obama administration proposed changing the rule to let children and spouses ask the government to decide on the waiver request before they head to their home country to seek a visa to return here legally.
The illegal immigrants would still have to go abroad to finish the visa process, but getting a provisional waiver approved in advance would reduce the time they are out of the country from months to days or weeks, said Alejandro Mayorkas, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
The purpose is “to minimize the extent to which bureaucratic delays separate Americans from their families for long periods of time,” Mayorkas told reporters.
It currently takes about six months for the government to issue a waiver, Mayorkas said.
The waiver shift is the latest move by President Barack Obama to make changes to immigration policy without congressional action. Congressional Republicans repeatedly have criticized the administration for policy changes they describe as providing “backdoor amnesty” to illegal immigrants.
The proposal also comes as Obama gears up for a re-election contest in which the support of Hispanic voters could prove a determining factor in a number of states. The administration hopes to change the rule later this year after taking public comments.
Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, on Friday accused the president of putting the interests of illegal immigrants ahead of those of Americans.
“It seems President Obama plays by his own rules to push unpopular policies on the American people,” the House Judiciary Committee chair said in a statement.
Immigrants who do not have criminal records and who have only violated immigration laws can win a waiver if they can prove their absence would cause an extreme hardship for their American spouse or parent. The government received about 23,000 hardship applications in 2011 and more than 70 percent were approved. About 75 percent of the applications were filed by Mexicans, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Kelly Alfaro, of Washington state, said her husband, Guillermo, waited in Mexico for eight months last year after he had his visa interview in Ciudad Juarez.
“I was terrified for his safety because I know how dangerous it is there and I had no way of knowing how long he would have to stay in Mexico,” she said.
Democratic lawmakers welcomed the Obama administration’s move.
“Has it taken a while? Yes. Is it happening? Yes,” said Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., who has encouraged such changes. “Am I looking forward to telling people to vote for him? Absolutely.”