Saturday, January 7, 2012

Immigration-Rule Change Proposed for Families

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 U.S.

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 they are 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," Mr. 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.

The proposal also came as Mr. Obama gears up for a re-election contest in which the support of Hispanic voters could prove a determining factor in a number of states. The administration hopes to change the rule later this year after taking public comments.

Rep. Lamar Smith (R., Texas) on Friday accused the president of 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 don't 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% were approved.

It currently takes about six months for the government to issue a waiver, Mr. Mayorkas said.

Immigrant advocates have long complained about the current system, which can split up families for months or years. And since there's no guarantee a person will win a waiver to return, many immigrant families refuse to take the risk of going abroad to apply for one.


Immigration issues remain hot-button issues for Arizona Legislature

The legislative testimony, the press conference and the boycotts over SB 1070 are pretty much all history. And its architect is gone, the victim of a recall.

All that remains now is to see whether the U.S. Supreme Court will let Arizona begin enforcing key sections of the tough new immigration law.

But that is not halting efforts in the new session that begins Monday to adopt even more laws aimed at the issue.

Sen. Steve Smith, R-Maricopa, is pushing two measures in particular. And while neither will directly reduce illegal immigration, he sees both as the steps to helping reduce the financial burden on Arizona taxpayers.

One would require that parents provide some proof when enrolling a child in public school that the youngster is either a citizen or here legally.

Technically, nothing in the legislation would preclude a child from being enrolled, as the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled all residents are entitled to public education regardless of legal status. Instead, Smith said, it's designed so the state can get a handle on the costs.

More than just getting a number is at issue.

In its 1982 ruling, the high court overturned a Texas law that denied state aid to educate any child not in this country legally. That law also gave local districts which would not be getting money the right -- but not the obligation -- to refuse to enroll those students.

Justice William Brennan, writing the decision, noted that Texas officials argued that they were justified in excluding illegal immigrants because of the "special burden' they placed on the state's ability to provide a high-quality education. But he said the record, at least in that case, "in no way supports the claim that the exclusion of undocumented children is likely to improve the overall quality of education in the state.'

Proponents of getting the data contend that those numbers would give Arizona the chance to make that argument and get the Supreme Court to overturn the ruling.

That, however, may be difficult.

Brennan said in that ruling a case might be made for denying benefits to people who purposely break the law. But he said the Texas law penalized children "who are present in this country through no fault of their own.'

Smith said that, if nothing else, the law itself might save money as some parents opt not to enroll their children in school.

"If you're the parent that's illegal, and the child is illegal, and they're afraid to go, well, guess what?' he said. "That's what we call the price of breaking the law.'

He acknowledged that the same thing could happen in the case where the child was born in this country -- and is a U.S. citizen entitled to an education under any scenario -- but the parent is an illegal immigrant.

Smith said the same is true of his other plan which would require hospitals to ask patients to prove legal presence in this country: It could deter some people from seeking care.

While illegal immigrants are ineligible for Medicaid and other programs, there is a requirement to fund emergency care for those who meet other financial requirements regardless of legal status. Hospitals also end up with some uncompensated care, with costs often passed on to paying patients and their insurance companies.

"Maybe the system is working,' Smith explained. "Maybe we can deter the amount of money that is hemorrhaging out every year in free services for people that don't deserve it.'

He said while that is not the underlying goal of either law, Smith said he would not be upset if that were a byproduct of the measures.

Both measures failed to get Senate approval last year. But Smith remains convinced that his colleagues can be convinced to go along.

But one measure that also faltered is unlikely to resurface: Having the state deny citizenship to the U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants.

Sen. Ron Gould, R-Lake Havasu City, said he still believes Arizona needs to pass such a law to force the U.S. Supreme Court to address the issue squarely of whether people are citizens solely by virtue of the location of their birth. He said that was never the intent of Congress when it approved the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in the wake of the civil war.

But Gould said that the same people who voted against the controversial measure last year are still in the Senate. And he said he has no reason to believe any will be convinced to reconsider.


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