At an evangelical church in Norcross, Ga., the audience heard from children… (Erik S. Lesser / Chicago…)
Like many other spouses of undocumented immigrants, Gina Pope constantly worries that her husband suddenly could be deported and that she would be left to raise their two children by herself.
Pope, a U.S. citizen, wants to apply for him to get a green card but knows that would mean his traveling to his native Peru, with the risk of not returning for months or years.
Now, after more than a decade of waiting for the immigration rules to change, Pope is cautiously optimistic that her husband, who owns a residential construction business and has a temporary work permit, may finally be able to become a legal resident.
"It does give me a little bit of hope," said Pope, who lives in South Carolina and gave her maiden name. "We need him to be here."
President Obama proposed a new rule last week that would allow certain illegal immigrants with U.S. citizen spouses or parents to stay here while they apply for hardship waivers, the first step for many before they can submit applications for legal residency. Without waivers, illegal immigrants can be barred from reentering the U.S. for up to 10 years.
Under the current rule, those who seek waivers have to go to their native countries and wait for the applications to be processed by U.S. officials, which could take months or years.
"The immigration bar and the immigrant community is very happy about this," said Pope's Los Angeles-based attorney, Carl Shusterman. He said he has had to advise many illegal immigrants married to U.S. citizens not to apply for green cards because of the 10-year bar and the separation they would face while seeking waivers.
But Shusterman added that the proposed rule — even though it could affect tens of thousands of immigrants — is limited. It doesn't change the fact that to get waiver, families must prove that deportation would cause extreme hardship to the U.S. relative. And if they succeed in getting waivers, the immigrants still would have to return to their native countries to apply for green cards.
It's uncertain how long it would take an individual to get a green card. But some attorneys say that with a hardship waiver, the waiting period could just be a few weeks.
The proposal angered Republicans, who accused Obama of bypassing Congress and passing a "back-door amnesty" through this and other recent changes.
Soon after she got married, Pope said, an attorney told her and her new husband not to apply for a green card and to wait for immigration reform. "That didn't happen," she said. Now, Pope, 32, said she is tired of living in fear and hopes that Obama's proposal will help.
Victoria Jensen, a U.S. citizen who lives in East Los Angeles, said she had hoped to marry her boyfriend of six years and petition for him to become a legal resident. But after an attorney told them that he would have to return to El Salvador to apply for the waiver and could get stuck there for 10 years, they decided to postpone a wedding and continue living together in East L.A.
"He's scared because of the way El Salvador is right now," said Jensen, a hospital interpreter.
Denise Martinez and Leider Gonzalez, both 22, live together in East. L.A. and said they were encouraged by Obama's proposal. Martinez, a community college student, was born in the U.S. and Gonzalez, her boyfriend, came here illegally four years ago.
"We want to get married … but we don't want to be apart," Martinez said.
The process to get green cards is a "bureaucratic nightmare" for couples, said Angelica Salas, who runs the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. The proposed rule will make at least one step easier, she said.
"It is going to help a lot of families who are going to be able to remain together, whose lives are not disrupted by having to leave the country for unknown periods of time," she said.