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Originally published Friday, March 30, 2012 at 6:40 PM

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Obama proposes easing in legal immigration-status applications

The new rule would reduce the time illegal immigrants are separated from their U.S. families while seeking legal status.

Tribune Washington bureau

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WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is proposing to make it easier for illegal immigrants who are immediate family members of U.S. citizens to apply for permanent residency, a move that could affect up to 1 million of the estimated 11 million immigrants living illegally here.

The new rule, which the Department of Homeland Security will post for public comment Monday, would reduce the time illegal immigrants are separated from their U.S. families while seeking legal status, immigration officials said. Currently, such immigrants must leave the country to apply for a legal visa, often leading to long stints away as they await resolution of their applications.

The proposal is the latest move by the administration to use its executive powers to revise immigration procedures without changing the law. It reflects an effort by President Obama to improve his standing among Latino voters who believe he has not met his 2008 campaign promise to pursue comprehensive immigration reform.

The president's push to pass the DREAM Act, a law that would have created a path to citizenship for young illegal immigrants enrolled in college or enlisted in the military, was defeated in the Senate in December. No reform legislation has been under serious consideration since, yet the U.S. has deported record numbers of illegal immigrants under Obama.

Many immigrants who might seek legal status do not pursue it out of fear they will not receive a "hardship waiver" of strict U.S. immigration laws. An illegal immigrant who has overstayed a visa for more than six months is barred from re-entering the U.S. for three years; those who overstay more than a year are barred for 10 years.

Lisa Battan, an immigration attorney based in Boulder, Colo., said the current process is "encouraging people to remain illegal."

The revised rule would allow illegal immigrants to claim that time apart from a spouse, child or parent who is a U.S. citizen would create "extreme hardship," and would permit them to remain in the country as they apply for legal status. Once approved, applicants would be required to leave the U.S. briefly, to return to their native country and pick up their visa.

The change could reduce a family's time apart to one week in some cases, officials said. The administration hopes to have the new procedures in place by the end of the year.

David Leopold, a Cleveland attorney and past president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, called the change a "minor processing tweak, but it has great value to families."

Republicans accused Obama of making an end-run around Congress.

"President Obama and his administration are bending long-established rules to grant backdoor amnesty to potentially millions of illegal immigrants," said Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas.

A U.S. immigration official countered that the revision affects only how the applications are processed, not whether the legal status ultimately is granted.

"What we are doing is reducing the time of separation, not changing the standard of obtaining a waiver," said Alejandro Mayorkas, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

The administration has made other administrative changes, such as a policy announced in June that gave prosecutors new authority to put on hold cases against immigration violators who have strong ties to the U.S. and no criminal record. The "discretion policy" encouraged immigration agents to focus on the removal of illegal immigrants who pose a threat to public safety or are repeat immigration-law violators.

A program intended to cull so-called "low priority" cases from immigration courts began in Denver and Baltimore this year and is now being expanded to Seattle and other cities.

The more targeted approach hasn't reduced the total number of people being deported annually from the U.S. Last year, 396,906 people were deported, a record number for the third consecutive year, and many of the deportees were relatives of U.S. citizens.

After the administration's new proposal is posted in the Federal Register on Monday, the public will have 60 days to critique the change.

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