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Finalization of Family Unity Visa Waiver to Shorten Separation Process for Some Families

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Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano this week announced the culmination of a years-long effort to reform the family unity waiver process for new Americans, who up until recently had to travel back to their country of origin to obtain a visa without any guarantee of being able to return.

It’s been a full year since the Obama administration first announced its intention to allow stateside processing of the family unity waiver, so that the husbands, wives, and children of US citizens could stay in the country while their applications were being considered.  Previously, new Americans who returned to their country of origin seeking a visa were liable to be caught by three and ten year bars (depending on how long they resided in the US without legal status) that prevented them from returning to their families in the US once they had left.  A waiver around these bars existed—but an applicant could only petition for these waivers from his or her own country, leaving the applicant languishing outside the US for months or years (often in dangerous areas of the world), waiting for a waiver that sometimes never came.

According to ABC News, in 2011, a Colorado man was murdered in Ciudad Juarez while accompanying his wife as she applied for a waiver. The American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) has compiled a list of immigrants who have been murdered, kidnapped and assaulted during the waiver application process abroad.

Now, when the new process begins March 3, new Americans will still have to travel back to their country of origin to obtain a visa—but they can leave the US with their three-and-ten-year bar waiver in hand, shortening the time they must spend out of the country to “a matter of weeks.”

The National Immigration Law Center in a statement today captured the importance of this move:

For too long, thousands of immigrants with U.S. citizen family members haven’t applied for permanent residency out of fear of being separated from their families. This new rule puts families first and allows immigrants to apply for permanent residency without having to spend months or years away from their loved ones.

In the year since the Obama administration first announced the intended reform, the change has been implemented more or less the way the administration first proposed, without the anti-immigrant backlash that used to be the norm whenever the government acted compassionately toward immigrants.  The lack of controversy perhaps demonstrates that the administration should have enacted this obviously sensible reform earlier—but we do credit them with sticking to their guns and carrying through.

All is not well yet—the family members of legal permanent residents are not yet eligible for these waivers, nor are bi-national same sex couples (as Think Progress notes).  And in order for all families to stay together, immigration reform that creates a roadmap to citizenship must happen this year.

But this week’s announcement is a good step.

To learn more about the family unity waiver process, view stories from our report here.