-By Matt O’Brien

Contra Costa Times

In the latest move to clear paths to legal residency for illegal immigrants, the Obama administration on Wednesday ruled that thousands of foreign spouses and children can stay with their U.S. citizen relatives while applying for green cards.

The policy “reduces long periods of separation between U.S. citizens and their immediate relatives,” Alejandro Mayorkas, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said Wednesday in a conference call.

The shift is a relief for married couples such as California winemakers Erika and Edgar Torres, who have delayed starting a family and lived in fear of forced separation because of immigration troubles.

They grew up in the coastal town of Cambria and dated while studying at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo before marrying in 2006. But Edgar Torres arrived in California illegally when he was 8, creating legal problems that have dogged the 32-year-old.

“No one understands, they just assume if you’re a U.S. citizen you can make your spouse legal,” said Erika Torres, 30. “I was pretty naive. I thought I’d marry him, I’d apply and everything would be fine.”

Until now, thousands of illegal immigrant spouses, parents and children of U.S. citizens had to return to their native countries to apply for permanent U.S. residency, risking months or years of separation from their families.

“We’re too terrified of the risks of him going down there,” Erika Torres said.”

The new rule allows them to apply for a waiver in the United States instead. More than 20,000 apply annually for the waiver, which requires U.S. citizens to show “extreme hardship” if their immigrant relative cannot return.

“Most of my clients weren’t willing to take the risk of not being able to come back,” said Bay Area immigration attorney Randall Caudle.

Weighing the separation risk against the risk of being undocumented, they “stayed here … without legal status of any kind,” Caudle said.

The Obama administration announced the proposal last year, but sought months of comments before making it a rule to be published
Thursday in the Federal Register. The policy will take effect on March 4.

Knowing that a change was coming, many lawyers advised their clients to wait for it before they sought permanent residency.

For years, Mexican immigrant spouses and children of U.S. citizens have had to cross the Texas border to violence-wracked Ciudad
Juárez for interviews at the U.S. Consulate there, the only American office in Mexico processing such requests for permanent residency.

But leaving the United States after an illegal entry triggered a 10-year or 3-year bar on returning, meaning relatives would also have to apply for to waive the bar. Three-quarters of immigrants seeking the waivers are from Mexico.

Those seeking permanent residency will still have to go to Juárez but no longer will have to wait for many months in Mexico as the
U.S. government evaluates their requests.

“Being able to stay here with my wife, continue our business, maybe starting a family this coming year … gives me a whole better hope,” Edgar Torres said.

He and his wife are members of American Families United, a national lobbying group that sought the changes.

The shift is the latest in a series of executive changes made by the Obama administration as it seeks broader immigration reforms, including a path to citizenship for nearly all the nation’s 11 million illegal immigrants.

More than 300,000 young illegal immigrants have applied since August for new work permits granted to college students and other law-abiding young adults and teenagers brought to the country as children. Edgar Torres was too old to benefit from the program, available only to those 30 and younger.

And on Dec. 21, the Obama administration directed federal immigration agents to stop detaining illegal immigrants arrested by police for minor crimes and infractions.

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  • jr(catholic counter capitalist)
    3 January 2013 at 10:07 pm - Reply

    Thank God for this blessings for the vulnerable people. This is a sweet redemption. God bless Obama. God bless America.