Obama eases family unification

The Obama administration, using executive powers, eased the granting of waivers to the undocumented spouses or children of U.S. citizens that may affect as many as 100,000   immigrants. Under current law those so related to citizens could seek a waiver that precludes a long stay outside the country and separation from the family–but only if there is “extreme hardship.” The condition is real, but the interpretation of the term is more elastic. About 23,000 such waivers were granted last year. What is new is that the waivers can be “provisionally granted” before the individual leaves the country to collect the visa to reenter and qualify for permanent residency.

While nowhere near comprehensive reform, this new regulation, as the New York Times editorializes, is “a major step toward bolstering legal immigration and protecting families–while removing some of the arbitrary cruelty from the working of the immigration bureaucracy.” As the rules now work, a Dreamer, for example, who is the child of a citizen would qualify for the hardship waiver but would have to return to his/her native country, not just to finish the visa process, but also to apply for and await the waiver. That can take months and necessitate a wait of months or a year–in dangerous cities like Juarez or Tijuana and far from family support. And there is no certainty that the waiver will eventually be granted. What the new rule will do is give a kind of guarantee to an applicant that a visa will come quickly, because the application process will be done here. It also will be an incentive to more of the undocumented to use the system. As it is now, most undocumented are discouraged from seeking a waiver because of the uncertainty and delay–and especially because of the need to leave the country with no assurances.

Immigration advocates welcome the new regulation, since it offers greater prospects of a visa and cuts unnecessary separation of families. The U.S. bishops strongly support comprehensive and compassionate immigration reform, following the exhortations of the Torah (Ex. 23:9; LV 19:33; Dt 10:17-19) and of Jesus (MT 25:35,43) to welcome the stranger. But in the context of American society, the bishops feel especially urgent is the need to respond to the negative impact of U.S. immigration law on families. It will probably welcome the initiative of the Obama administration and the Office of Customs and Immigration Services.

The new regulation will not be welcomed by the Republicans. While immigration bashing hasn’t been too pronounced in the Iowa race, front-runner Mit Romney nonetheless mentions enough to indicate that no GOP aspirant for office dare say anything nice about “illegals.” Perry and Gingrich learned that. Rep. Lamar Smith (R. TX), chair of the House Judiciary Committee, already condemned the rule as part of Obama’s “back-door amnesty.” Unfortunately the mainstream press has framed the discussion of the new rule too much in terms of the election–e.g., Obama trying to shore up the Hispanic support in Florida, Arizona, New Mexico, and Nevada.

But immigration advocates feel it was long overdue and it was the right thing to do. There is no prospect of comprehensive reform with this Congress, and with a decision coming down from a divided Supreme Court this summer on the Alabama and Arizona laws, the political atmosphere for a rational discussion of immigration reform is highly unlikely. What little progress will be made with the new regulation is welcomed.