SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Latinos praised the Obama administration Friday for proposing a rule 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.
"It is a monumental step forward in keeping families together here," said Tony Yapias, director of Proyecto Latino de Utah.
Currently, illegal immigrants in most cases 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.
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," he told reporters.
"I believe it's a step in the right direction, but it's a tiny step," said Mark Alvarez, a Salt Lake attorney and community activist.
About 23,000 people applied for the waivers last year and 17,000 were granted, he said.
Alvarez predicted that would go up with the rule change, "but we're not talking about huge numbers. I doubt it would triple. It might double. That does very little to put a dent in the immigration challenge this country faces."
It would not open up additional routes for illegal immigrants to become residents, though some will call it amnesty, he said.
Yapias said it's hard to say how many undocumented immigrants in Utah it might effect, but it could perhaps be thousands.
"The reason this is happening is due to Congress' inaction on immigration reform," he said.
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.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, denounced Obama’s decision to go around Congress and use his executive power to change immigration rules.
The president, he said, has opted to change a long-standing immigration policy to score cheap political points and reward those who have come to the country illegally.
"We need a president who is interested in working with Congress to find a comprehensive immigration solution that respects the rule of law, not a president solely focused on what policies best appeal to his political base," he said.
Contributing: Associated Press