Change to Immigration Process May Keep Families Together

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The road to a green card will be less burdensome for some spouses, children and parents of U.S. citizens after an administrative change announced today by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

The change will cut down on the amount of time that some undocumented immigrants are separated from their immediate family members during the journey to legal status. So instead of spending months or even years abroad, a person may face as little as a few weeks outside of the U.S.

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That could make a big difference for families who depend on an undocumented relative for things like sick care, raising children and paying bills. According to a statement by USCIS Director Alejandro Mayorkas, the law hopes to "avoid extreme hardship to U.S. citizens."

The amended process is only available to undocumented immigrants who can prove that their immediate family members would suffer "extreme hardship" in their absence, among other criteria. USCIS did not have an estimate for the number of people it expected to apply, but the Los Angeles Times reported that the change could impact as many as one million of the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S.

The administrative tweak is necessary because the law requires some undocumented immigrants to leave the country as part of the green card application process. If a person entered the U.S. illegally, then they must apply from their country of origin. But once that person leaves the U.S., they can be barred from re-entering for either three or ten years, depending on how long they were in the country without authorization.

Those bars can be lifted if the applicant obtains something known as a family unity waiver. But under the previous policy, to get the waiver, you needed to apply from your home country. The process meant being separated from family members for months to a year. And if your waiver application was denied, you could be stuck abroad for a decade or, in some cases, permanently.

The new process, which takes effect on March 4, will still require some undocumented immigrants to travel to their country of origin, but for a shorter period of time. Since they can apply for the family unity waiver stateside, a qualifying individual won't have to worry about the threat of a three- or ten-year bar.

Aside from the general hardships, a separation can even be life-threatening. In 2011, a Colorado man was murdered in Ciudad Juarez after he traveled there to protect his wife as she applied for a waiver. The American Immigration Lawyers Association has compiled a list of immigrants who have been murdered, kidnapped and assaulted during the waiver application process abroad.

As many as 25,000 immigrants apply for family unity waivers each year, according to officials from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The agency grants the vast majority of waivers – including 88 percent in 2012 and 84 percent in 2011.

Andres Benach, an immigration lawyer in Washington, DC, said many of his clients "are not willing to take that risk." Benach said that the change would likely inspire more green card applicants, although he couldn't say how many. "I think there could be quite a few," he said. "People choose not to pursue [legal] status because of that risk all the time."

Additional reporting was contributed by Albert Sabaté.

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