White House offers easier process for legal residence

Attorney Jessica Dominguez (left) speaks with Jose Luis Barajas and his wife, Laura Barajas, at Dominguez's office in Los Angeles on Friday. The couple are getting advice from Dominguez for Laura, who is in the country illegally, and her proposed trip to Mexico to get her legal papers.

WASHINGTON -- The White House announced plans Friday to significantly shorten the time that illegal immigrants would have to spend away from their U.S. citizen spouses or parents while seeking legal status.

Illegal immigrants must leave the U.S. for three to 10 years before applying for legal entry, depending on how long they have been here illegally. Tens of thousands apply each year for a waiver, but they must still return to their home countries while waiting for the U.S. government to decide on the request.

The waivers are granted to immigrants without criminal records who can prove that their absence would cause "extreme hardship" for their U.S. citizen spouse or parent. Last year, 23,000 people applied, and 17,000 were granted.

The change would allow spouses and children of U.S. citizens to stay in the country while the government decides whether to issue a waiver, shortening the time families are separated. Immigrants would still need to return to their country to apply for a visa once the waiver is granted. The rules would not change regarding who is eligible to apply.

The proposal, posted Friday to the Federal Register, is slated to take effect this year.

Advocates said the change will save time and money, taking pressure off U.S. consular offices abroad that now must adjudicate the requests and send documents back and forth to the U.S. State Department to process them. Waiver applications currently take six months to a year to process, though some can take longer.

"We have seen cases of extreme hardship where the time of separation is quite lengthy and where that length of time results in an enduring hardship," said Alejandro Mayorkas, director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.