How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

New rules aim to end visa seekers' long family separations

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esus Alcazar/AFP/Getty Images

A Mexican soldier controls traffic at the Mexico-U.S. border customs post in Ciudad Juarez. Over the years, many undocumented immigrants from Mexico have been stuck in Juarez long-term after traveling there from the U.S. to apply for permission to return legally.

Starting March 4th, thousands of undocumented immigrants with U.S. citizen relatives will be able to apply for legal residency here under a new administrative rule introduced Wednesday. It’s part of the Obama administration's effort to promote immigration reform.

The new rule applies to individuals who have accrued more than six months of unlawful presence while in the United States. In the past that would have made them ineligible to return to this country if they left to obtain an immigrant visa.

Soon they may apply for a waiver that allows them to return. Typically, it can take months   or years for undocumented spouses or children to legally reunite. 

The rule change will allow certain undocumented immigrants to apply for a provisional unlawful presence waiver before they depart the United States, letting them know before they go whether they qualify, and preventing extended separations from loved ones.

“What has traditionally been months of separation, now will no longer materialize,” U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services director Alejandro Mayorkas said. “The individual will remain in the United States while his or her application is pending, so that time of separation is removed.” 

Mayorkas said that could reduce the wait to a few weeks. This new measure could make it possible to legalize as many as one million of the 11- to 12-million undocumented immigrants who live in this country.

“The only time of separation will be once the individual’s interview at the consular office abroad has been scheduled, the time that they will take to attend the interview abroad, wait for the Department of State’s determination after the interview, and then return to the United States,” Mayorkas said.

Critics such as the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies argue that the volume of legal and illegal immigration to the U.S. is unsustainable. Its officials quote a census estimate that within 40 years, immigrants will account for three-fourths of future population growth.

The immigration agency proposed the rule change was first last year. It fielded more than 4,000 responses during a public comment period before the change became final. The agency also recently revised the way it handles waiver forms from applicants in Mexico.

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