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Family Unity Waiver Process Will Help Keep Some American Families Together

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On a press call today held by America’s Voice Education Fund and the American Immigration Lawyers Association, legal experts, families and immigrant advocates applauded the initiation of a new family unity waiver process by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services that will keep families together, improve the bureaucracy, and facilitate legal immigration. 

Currently, U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents face unnecessary and dangerous hurdles in obtaining a “green card” (lawful permanent resident status) for a spouse or child who resides in the U.S. without papers.  They have to file a visa petition, and once the petition is approved and the visa appointment scheduled, the spouse or child has to travel to a U.S. consulate in their home country to be interviewed.  At this point, they face “unlawful presence bars” of three or ten years depending on how long they resided in the U.S. without legal immigration status.  A waiver exists in the law for cases where prolonged separation would cause “extreme hardship” to a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident, but currently applicants must apply for the waiver abroad and face weeks, months, or even years of separation and uncertainty before receiving a decision.  

Today, the Obama Administration announced its intention to allow stateside processing of the family unity waiver and allow husbands, wives and children of U.S. citizens to stay in the U.S. while their waiver application is being adjudicated.  Applicants will still need to return to their home country to finish the process, but they will not face the months or years of separation and anxiety that so many currently do. 

This change only applies to the spouses and children of U.S. citizens.  In a press call today, advocates and American families applauded the processing change, and called on the Obama Administration to further expand its reach to cover families headed by legal permanent residents.   

David Leopold, Past President of the American Immigration Lawyers Association and a Cleveland-based immigration attorney, explained, “Under current immigration law, spouses of U.S Citizens have to go overseas, for example, to Mexico, to a U.S consulate and apply for a waiver. The problem is, once they set foot outside of the U.S they get barred. They face a Catch-22.  Processing waivers in the United States streamlines this process by allowing people to ‘do their time’ while with their families, instead of waiting abroad for months or years.”

Angelica Salas, Executive Director, Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles concluded, “This rule change will help ease the hardship on families, who under the current law, have had to endure long separations from spouses and children as they wait for waivers to return to the United States. In many cases, the family breadwinner has had to leave the country, forcing the rest of the family to try and make ends meet. Hundreds of thousands of families have had to endure extreme hardship under the current law.”

During the call, family members who have experienced serious hardships under the current process told their stories and applauded this change that will help other families like theirs.

Kelly Alfaro of Washington state, a U.S. citizen whose husband lost an eye due to an infection caught in Ciudad Juárez while waiting for his family unity waiver, said, “When your spouse, the love of your life, is told he has a life threatening infection and must immediately go to the hospital, you rush to his side.  But what happens when he’s in a foreign country, barred from returning until you’ve successfully completed a lengthy waiver process even with an approvable visa case?  My hope is by sharing our story other American citizens will not have to face the separation, anxiety and these potentially life altering repercussions.”

Viktoria Ivanova of California was separated from her U.S. citizen husband for three years while waiting for her family unity waiver.  She added, “When I applied for a waiver, the process was extremely hard on me and my husband. He became medically depressed during the process. It was difficult to monitor any changes or any progress, and I felt like nobody could help me—even though I had a lawyer. It felt like applying for something unreal.”

While the announcement will help a number of American families, Douglas Stump, First Vice President, American Immigration Lawyers Association, pointed out that the change is limited: “This announcement does not actually represent a substantive change in the law. The new procedure would provide a mechanism for U.S. Citizens to protect their families while ensuring that their spouses and children comply with the law.  The unlawful alien remains subject to all other penalties associated with unlawful presence in the United States.  It’s all about smart enforcement of the immigration law in a way that keeps Americans safe.”

Speakers made it clear that the rule will take months to go into effect, and is not currently in place.  Potential beneficiaries should consult the advice of competent attorneys and BIA-accredited advisors before filing any paperwork.  They also called on the Administration to extend this process to spouses and children of legal permanent residents, who face the same obstacles and dangers when required to wait abroad for their waiver adjudications.

Lynn Tramonte, Deputy Director of America’s Voice Education Fund, who moderated the call, said, “This is a pro-family, pro-legal immigration proposal.  It doesn’t create a new right or benefit for anyone, and it doesn’t replace the need for legislative reform by Congress.  But it’s a good example of how even the current broken immigration laws can be applied in a fairer, more humane way.  It is a common sense processing change, and anyone who claims to support legal immigration and family unity should embrace it.”

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