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Obama to ease restrictions on returning immigrants

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Obama to ease restrictions on returning immigrants

Waivers would help those applying to return with legal status

  • President Obama tapes his weekly radio address on Dec. 29.
    Pete Souza/White HousePresident Obama tapes his weekly radio address on Dec. 29.

The Obama administration is expected to announce Friday a change to immigration policies that would ease restrictions on illegal immigrants trying to re-enter the country after applying for legal status.

The change, first reported by the New York Times, would allow the United States Citizen and Immigration Services, or USCIS, to give applicants provisional waivers here before they move back to their home countries to apply for legal status. The waivers would allow the applicants re-entry during the application process.

"The goal is to substantially reduce the time that the U.S. citizen is separated from the spouse or child when that separation would yield an extreme hardship," USCIS Director Alejandro Mayorkas told the Times.

Under the current rule immigrants who admit to being in the country illegally – what the government calls entering without inspection – and wish to apply for legal status must return to their country of origin and apply there. When they do that, they are barred from entering this country for a number of years.

The same applies to immigrants who overstay a period of legal admission. An immigrant who has been in the United States illegally for more than 180 days but less than a year must wait three years before attempting reentry.

That increases to 10 years if the illegal stay is longer than a year. Immigrant rights groups have said the policy separates families when spouses, children and siblings of legal residents or citizens are forced to leave the country for that extended period of time. Certain hardship exceptions are sometimes granted, but critics say that process is also lengthy and flawed.

The proposal comes as Democrats say obstructionist lawmakers from the right are hindering progress on the immigration front. It also comes as when Obama, whose administration has deported a record number of immigrants, is losing support among Latinos.

Analysts say whichever candidate wins the White House later this year must obtain the support of at least 40 percent of that demographic. According to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, the country now has an estimated 12.2 million projected Latino voters, an increase of about 26 percent from 2008's figures. Texas is home to about 2 million of them.

The move has already drawn the the ire of  top GOP lawmakers, who have balked at other recent proposals set forth by the Obama administration.

"President Obama and his administration are bending long established rules to put illegal immigrants ahead of the interests of American citizens and legal immigrants.  This proposal from the Obama administration comes with no surprise considering their abuse of administrative powers," Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, said in a statement this morning.

Smith, the chairman of the powerful House Judiciary Committee, has hurled a steady pattern of harsh rebukes toward the administration.

After last summer's directive by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, which urged federal prosecutors to use "prosecutorial discretion" — taking into account factors like education, relatives who are U.S. citizens or who have served in the military, or whether the individual is a primary caretaker of someone who is ill —  when determining which illegal immigrants to place in deportation proceedings, Smith filed legislation that would have limited the president's immigration enforcement powers.

The chairman said the move was an attempt by the president to grant "backdoor amnesty." The administration said it was an attempt to focus the government's limited resources on deporting criminal aliens that pose a threat to public safety. 

That was followed by an announcement in August by the Department of Homeland Security, that it would begin reviewing the case files of the estimated 300,000 illegal immigrants in deportation proceedings to determine which should be released from custody.

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