SEATTLE (AP) - Several hundred Washington families are expected to benefit from a U.S. immigration rule change announced this week that makes it easier to keep American citizens together with their illegal immigrant spouses and children.
The legal director for the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project said Thursday that it's too early to say how much time and effort the new rule will save families.
"It's going to be interesting to see how it comes about in practice," said Matt Adams.
Before the rule change, which goes into effect March 4, many illegal immigrants had to leave the country before they could ask the federal government to waive a three- to 10-year ban from returning to their American families.
Under the new rule, a U.S. citizen can petition for a waiver while the noncitizens remain in this country waiting for a decision. They will still have to prove that a separation will cause extreme hardship to their U.S. citizen spouse or parent.
Illegal immigrants will still have to return to their home country to finish the process, but the new rule is expected to save them months of waiting time and shorten the separation from their loved ones.
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigrant Services office was unable to estimate how many people from Washington state would be affected by the change. Adams estimated it would be several hundred, based on the fact that several hundred people seek legal help each year in this state concerning the situation affected by the rule change.
U.S. officials estimated the rule change would affect more than 24,000 people across the nation but could not break the number down state-by-state.
In a news conference about the rule change Wednesday, Alejandro Mayorkas, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigrant Services, said the time abroad for the consular interviews will be reduced from months to weeks.
Adams said the change isn't everything immigrant rights advocates want, but it's a move in the right direction.
"I don't think it's a final solution. We need Congress to act," he said.
The waiver shift is the most recent result of President Barack Obama's changing immigration policy without congressional action. Congressional Republicans have criticized the president's efforts as granting "backdoor amnesty" to illegal immigrants.
Adams said immigrant activists are not sure why the rule change only affects families of American citizens, when a larger group of legal permanent residents also are affected by similar rules that cause families to be separated.
"It could be that they want to roll it out on a smaller scale," he said, adding, "I'm not optimistic that they will later revisit this, at least not in the near future."
U.S. Citizenship and Immigrant Services: http://www.uscis.gov
Northwest Immigrant Rights Project: http://www.nwirp.org
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