WASHINGTON Immigration advocates on Thursday hailed a rule change at the Department of Homeland Security that would make it easier for many undocumented immigrants to stay in the United States as they seek permanent residency, saying it will improve the lives of relatives who could have been separated for years without the changes.
For President Barack Obama who has called the inability to achieve comprehensive immigration reform among the biggest regrets of his first term the new policy is among a series of steps his administration has taken over the past year aimed in part at easing the pace of deportations, which have surged during his tenure. The steps also came amid a presidential campaign that included sharp disagreements over immigration policy and strong support among Latinos and Asians for Obama.
THE NEW CHANGES
The centerpiece was Obamas decision, announced last June, to stop deporting people who were brought to the country as children and have gone on to be productive and otherwise law-abiding residents.
He is checking off every administrative box he can of what he can do with executive authority that comports with his overall view of immigration policy, said Angela Kelley, an analyst at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think-tank allied with the White House.
The latest policy change is focused on illegal immigrants who have a spouse, parent or child with U.S. citizenship. Currently, in order to become legal they must leave the United States and apply for a waiver forgiving their unlawful presence in the country. Only then can they apply for an immigrant visa. And if they dont get a waiver, they are barred from returning to the United States for up to 10 years, depending on the case.
The specter of being barred deterred many from applying. But under the rule change finalized Wednesday, those who qualify will be able to apply for waivers from within the United States starting March 4. Applicants must return to their native country for a brief period for the consular immigrant visa process.
The new rule greatly reduces the risk inherent in applying for a waiver, as people whose applications are rejected would still be in the United States when they heard the news. Even for those whose applications are approved, the new rule will allow them to spend much less time outside the United States, as they will travel abroad with waivers in hand.
Champions of stricter immigration controls denounced the administrations action, saying that such rule changes reward lawbreakers and allow them to cut the line in front of people who have abided by legal procedures.
Its definitely using executive authority or privileges to make an end-run around the law the way its written, said Jessica Vaughan of the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies. The law was intended to make it difficult for people who were living here illegally. This is a way for the administration to change a law that they dont like ... without having to go through Congress, where they probably couldnt get it changed.
Obama has faced sharp criticism from liberals for his administrations high levels of deportations, which reached 409,849 from October 2011 through September 2012, the fourth consecutive year that the number increased. But immigration advocates have cheered his policy moves over the past year, and he won re-election in November with more than 70 percent of the Latino and Asian vote.
In another recent policy change, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office announced last month that it would focus community detention efforts on illegal immigrants with a record of previous felony convictions or several misdemeanors.