WATSONVILLE -- A new immigration policy will make it easier for hundreds of Central Coast families to stay together while spouses and children work to obtain green cards.
The policy, announced Wednesday by the Obama administration and effective March 4, allows immigrants who entered the country illegally to remain in the United States during a waiver process that typically takes up to a year to complete.
At least 2,000 area immigrants whose spouses or parents have legal status stand to benefit from the change that's been in the works for almost a year, said Doug Keegan, Santa Cruz County Immigration Project program director.
"I've been telling people for the last six months not to start the process because I knew this stateside waiver was in the works and it would be such a benefit to apply under that process," Keegan said. "I've told hundreds of people that myself."
Under immigration law, people who cross the border illegally must return to their home countries and wait up to 10 years before seeking legal entry into the United States. The waiver gives them permission to return sooner if their American families would suffer an extreme hardship from the separation. For thousands of Mexican immigrant spouses and children, obtaining a waiver has meant traveling across the Texas border to violence-wracked Cuidad Juarez, home to the only U.S. Consulate in Mexico, to process requests for permanent residency.
The policy "reduces long periods of separation between U.S. citizens and their immediate relatives," Alejandro Mayorkas, director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said Wednesday in a conference call.
Immigrants still must return to their native country to get visas. But that's a much less burdensome process than obtaining the waiver, for which applicants must meet strict criteria, Keegan said. Once the waiver is secured, officials "issue your visa and you're back in the United states in one or two weeks," he said. "That's dramatically different."
More than 20,000 people apply annually for the family waiver. The numbers are expected to rise now that families no longer risk long separations.
"Most of my clients weren't willing to take the risk of not being able to come back," said San Francisco Bay Area immigration lawyer Randall Caudle.
The policy shift is the latest in a series of executive changes made by the Obama administration as it seeks broader immigration reforms in the coming year, including a path to citizenship for nearly all the nation's 11 million undocumented immigrants.
On Dec. 21, the president directed officials to stop detaining undocumented immigrants arrested for minor crimes or infractions.
In August, he eased rules for young immigrants brought to the country illegally as children. Since then, more than 300,000 have applied for green cards nationwide. Keegan said his office has submitted applications for the 300 to 400 youths from Santa Cruz, Monterey and San Benito counties.
MediaNews contributed to this report.
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