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Migrant Nation

Obama Administration touts rule change to aid undocumented families

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This month the Obama Administration announced plans to tweak a long-standing immigration rule, rolling out the newest partial fix that, if implemented, could help thousands of mixed-citizenship families caught in immigration limbo. With Obama moving into campaign mode, needing support from a booming Hispanic population largely disappointed with first-term record on immigration, the announcement served as a well-timed hit — the National Immigration Forum declared it a “tremendous victory.”

Under current law, undocumented spouses or children of U.S. citizens can apply for a waiver from a ban on re-entering the U.S. that can last for up to 10 years, if they prove separation would be an extreme hardship on their families. And they must leave the country to do so, sometimes waiting up to two years while the paperwork's processed, immigration attorneys say. For most undocumented Mexican immigrants, that means waiting in violence-racked Ciudad Juarez, separated from families stateside.

“Who's going to want to leave their wife, their kids for years with that uncertainty?” said David Leopold, former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. The current system, he said, keeps an untold number of mixed-citizenship families “in the shadows.” To avoid that separation, many just “hunker down,” hoping for reform, praying Immigration and Customs Enforcement doesn't come knocking, he said.

San Antonio immigration attorney Joe De Mott said his office sees clients leave every year for Juarez seeking the waiver, only to wait months or years in processing. In a recent case, he said, the citizen wife of an immigrant struggled to stay afloat when the husband left and his income dropped out. “She ended up out on the streets, sleeping under a bridge while her husband was gone,” he said.

With the change, undocumented family members could file for the hardship waiver stateside, staying in the U.S. with family while they await a decision. When they ultimately have to leave the country to finish the paperwork, it would take weeks instead of months or years.

“It will literally save lives,” said AILA president Eleanor Pelta. “Unfortunately, most waiver applications are filed in Ciudad Juarez on the U.S.-Mexico border, an extremely dangerous city these days, and more than one applicant has been murdered or seriously harmed while waiting there.”

Still, the proposal wouldn't expand the pool of people eligible for relief and wouldn't go into effect until at least the end of the year if approved. Someone who applies and is denied would still be “out of the shadows” and subject to deportation, Leopold said.

Even with the proposal, Obama's heading into a 2012 election with a checkered record on immigration — regardless on which side you stand. The Department of Homeland Security's pushed discretion, aiming to review some 300,000 pending deportation cases to target criminal immigrants and high-risk offenders instead of those with clean records and strong ties to the U.S. — like those brought into the country illegally as kids. Those opposed, including San Antonio GOP Congressman Lamar Smith, continue to bash the new strategy, including the proposed hardship-waiver change, as backdoor or de-facto amnesty.

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