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 the administration might expand the changes to include relatives of lawful permanent residents.
The change, first proposed in April, is the latest Obama administration move to use executive powers to revise immigration procedures without Congress passing a law. In August, the administration began a program to halt deportation of young people brought to the United States 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 Washington think tank that supports tighter immigration controls. "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.
"It's going to be a better future for me," said Analy Olivas, 21, from Claremont, Calif., who crossed the border illegally from Mexico with her family when she was 8 and eventually married a U.S. citizen. She didn't think she could bear to be separated from her 4-year-old son, Naythan, for an extended period, adding: "If I kept on going through the process, I was going to have to leave the country. I wasn't ready for it."
"The change will have a significant impact on American families by greatly reducing the time family members are separated from those they rely upon," said Alejandro Mayorkas, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Wait times will be "drastically reduced," he said.
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 Wednesday in the Federal Register.
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.
Until now, officials said, many immigrants who might seek legal status have not pursued a hardship waiver of strict U.S. immigration laws out of fear that they will be rejected and stuck outside the country. Someone who has overstayed a visa for more than six months is barred from re-entering the United States for three years; those who overstay more than a year are barred for 10 years.
Many Mexicans applying for a visa must report to the U.S. Consulate in Ciudad Juarez, one of Mexico's most violent cities. Fearful applicants often spend weeks in hiding while waiting for appointments with consular officials. U.S.-born spouses also must travel to Juarez for interviews to determine whether marriages are valid.
Those who applied for a hardship waiver in the past but were denied will be eligible to apply again under the new rule, officials said. Family members who have been in deportation proceedings that were suspended will also qualify. But someone who has been deported before, or is facing a final deportation order, is not eligible.
Los Angeles immigration attorney Carl Shusterman hailed the end of what he called a "totally crazy system."