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Simplifying immigration

Editorial

The Obama administration has proposed a workable solution to the mess that spouses of U.S. citizens must deal with to legalize their status.

January 12, 2012
  • At an evangelical church in Norcross, Ga., the audience heard from children affected by the crackdown on illegal immigration. Organizers continue to pressure President Obama to prioritize comprehensive immigration reform.
At an evangelical church in Norcross, Ga., the audience heard from children… (Erik S. Lesser / Chicago…)

The U.S. immigration system is a capricious and convoluted bureaucracy. Take, for example, the rules that children and spouses of U.S. citizens must navigate to legalize their status.

Currently, immigrants who qualify for a visa, and ultimately a green card, must return to their homelands to receive it. The problem is that the moment they leave the United States, they trigger automatic sanctions that bar them from returning for up to 10 years. Some can secure waivers to reenter, but only if they demonstrate that their absence will create extreme hardship to a parent or spouse who is a U.S. citizen.

That's an untenable choice: leave the U.S. and run the risk of being separated from a spouse for years, or stay and live in fear of deportation.

Last week, the Obama administration proposed a simple solution. The Citizenship and Immigration Service laid out a rule change that would allow immigrants who are eligible for a green card to remain in the country while they apply for the hardship waiver. They would then be required to return to their birth country to receive the visa, but with the waiver in hand, they would not be barred from reentering the United States. The rule would likely go into effect later this year, after the public has been allowed to comment.

It's a modest change that would primarily apply to spouses of U.S. citizens, some of whom serve in the military. Yet no doubt the proposal will trigger opposition from those who favor a tough approach to immigration policy. Rep. Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, is already denouncing it and accusing the administration of trying to grant "a backdoor amnesty" for those in the country illegally. That's a scare tactic; the rule change has nothing to do with amnesty. It is an administrative change that simply streamlines the waiver application process. It does not allow applicants to jump to the front of the line or ease the requirements they must meet.

Last year, federal immigration officials received 23,000 waiver applications, most of them from Mexican citizens. Yes, that number would likely increase under the new rule, but not because immigrants would try to game the system; rather, because the current rules discourage so many from stepping forward.

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