The Obama administration proposed a rule change Friday to reduce the time that illegal immigrant spouses and children are separated from their American relatives while they try to gain legal status in the United States.
Currently, many illegal immigrants must leave the country before they can ask the government to waive a three- to 10-year ban on legally coming back to the U.S. The length of the ban depends on how long they have lived in the U.S. without permission.
The new rule would let children and spouses of citizens ask the government to decide on the waiver request before they head to their home country to apply for a visa.
The illegal immigrants would still have to go abroad to finish the visa process, but getting the waiver approved in advance would reduce the time an illegal immigrant is out of the country from months to days or weeks, said Alejandro Mayorkas, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
The purpose is "to minimize the extent to which bureaucratic delays separate Americans from their families for long periods of time," Mayorkas told reporters.
The waiver shift is the latest move by President Barack Obama to make changes to immigration policy without congressional action. Congressional Republicans repeatedly have criticized the administration for policy changes they describe as providing "backdoor amnesty" to illegal immigrants.
Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, on Friday accused the president putting the interests of illegal immigrants ahead of those of Americans.
"It seems President Obama plays by his own rules to push unpopular policies on the American people," the House Judiciary Committee chair said in a statement.
Immigrants who do not have criminal records and who have only violated immigration laws can win a waiver if they can prove their absence would cause an extreme hardship for their American spouse or parent. The government received about 23,000 hardship applications in 2011 and more than 70 percent were approved.
It currently takes about six months for the government to issue a waiver, Mayorkas said. The administration hopes to change the rule later this year.
Immigration has become a difficult issue for Obama ahead of the November election. As a presidential candidate, he pledged to change what many consider to be a broken immigration system.
To that end, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced plans last year to review some 300,000 pending deportation cases in an effort to target criminal illegal immigrants, repeat immigration law violators and those who pose a national security or public safety threat.
Napolitano said the DHS would delay indefinitely the cases of many illegal immigrants who have no criminal record and those who have been arrested for only minor traffic violations or other misdemeanors.
A pilot program to review about 12,000 cases pending in immigration court in Baltimore and Denver was launched in November and ends next week. The review is expected to expand to other jurisdictions later this year.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton also issued a memo in June outlining how immigration authorities could use discretion in deciding which illegal immigrants to arrest and put into deportation proceedings.
Morton wrote in the memo that discretion could be used in a variety of cases, including for people with no criminal record and young people brought to the country illegally as children.
Congressional Republicans have decried the policy changes, arguing that the Obama administration is circumventing Congress to essentially provide amnesty to countless illegal immigrants.
Several attempts at an immigration law overhaul have failed in recent years, including the so-called DREAM Act, which would have allowed for some young illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children to earn legal status if they went to college or joined the military.