AThe Obama administration’s decision this week to ease visa requirements for hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants represents its latest move to reshape immigration through executive action, even as the White House gears up for an uncertain political fight over a far-more-sweeping legislative package in the months ahead.
Immigration advocates on Thursday hailed a rule change at the Department of Homeland Security that would make it easier for many undocumented immigrants to stay in the United States as they seek permanent residency, saying it will improve the lives of relatives who could have been separated for years without the changes.
“He is checking off every administrative box he can of what he can do with executive authority that comports with his overall view of immigration policy,” said Angela Kelley, an analyst at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank allied with the White House.
The latest policy change is focused on illegal immigrants who have a spouse, parent or child with U.S. citizenship. Currently, in order to become legal they must leave the United States and apply for a waiver forgiving their unlawful presence in the country. Only then can they apply for an immigrant visa. And if they don’t get a waiver, they are barred from returning to the United States for up to 10 years, depending on the case.
But champions of stricter immigration controls denounced the administration’s action, saying that such rule changes reward lawbreakers and allow them to cut the line in front of people who have abided by legal procedures.
“It’s definitely using executive authority or privileges to make an end run around the law the way it’s written,” said Jessica Vaughan of the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies. “The law was intended to make it difficult for people who were living here illegally. This is a way for the administration to change a law that they don’t like . . .without having to go through Congress, where they probably couldn’t get it changed.”
She added: “With each instance of this, the administration is providing amnesty to another group of people, and as long as they can get away with it, they’ll keep doing it.”
In another recent policy change, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office announced last month that it would focus community detention efforts on illegal immigrants with a record of previous felony convictions or several misdemeanors. Agency officials said the move was made to put the department’s limited resources to better use in targeting the most dangerous criminals.
Still, administration officials emphasize that such administrative actions are not intended as a substitute for broader legislation, which would be aimed at providing a path to citizenship for the nation’s 11 million undocumented workers.
Although Obama has pledged to push for comprehensive legislation early in his second term, the White House’s timetable has been complicated by the prospect of another round of fiscal negotiations over the debt ceiling in February and the president’s pledge to support a gun-control bill in the wake of the mass school shooting in Newtown, Conn.
Analysts said the latest policy change could alter the personal calculus of many immigrants who have concluded that remaining in the United States illegally is less risky than applying for a visa and being separated for years on end.
To qualify, an applicant must be inadmissible only on account of his or her unlawful presence in the United States and must demonstrate that being separated from family would mean “extreme hardship” for his or her U.S. relative.
“It’s a potentially significant feature of immigration law going forward because it removes this Catch-22 that people were subject to before,” said Audrey Singer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who focuses on immigration.