WASHINGTON – Illegal immigrants who are immediate relatives of American citizens will have an easier path to permanent residency under a new Obama administration rule that could affect as many as 1 million of the estimated 11 million people unlawfully in the United States.
The rule issued Wednesday by the Department of Homeland Security aims to reduce the time illegal immigrants are separated from their U.S. families while seeking legal status, officials said.
Beginning March 4, illegal immigrants who can demonstrate that time apart from an American spouse, child or parent would create “extreme hardship” can apply for a visa without leaving the United States. Once approved, applicants would be required to leave briefly in order to return to their native country and pick up their visa.
Sources said that the administration might expand the changes to include relatives of lawful permanent residents.
The change, first proposed in April, is the latest move by the administration to use executive powers to revise immigration procedures without Congress passing a law. In August, the Obama administration launched a program to halt the deportation of young people brought to the U.S. unlawfully as children.
“This is a continuation of usurping Congress’ control over immigration,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank in Washington that supports tighter controls on immigration. “This waiver rule is a small piece of this broader effort to go around Congress.”
The new procedures could reduce a family’s time apart to one week in some cases, officials said. In recent years a few relatives of U.S. citizens have been killed in violence in foreign countries while waiting for their applications to be resolved, a process that could take a year or longer.
The immigration agency does not provide applicants with a specific definition of “extreme hardship,” despite requests from legal aid organizations to clarify the phrase. The agency “looks at the totality of the applicant’s circumstances and any supporting evidence,” according to the final rule posted in the Federal Register on Wednesday.
Immigration officials said they have no plans to add staff to process what could be a large number of new hardship-waiver applications. The agency received 24,780 such applications between September 2011 and October 2012.