Hadi Elzein applied for a green card for his undocumented wife, never contemplating she might have to go back to Mexico and wait for months -- if not years -- to legally return to the U.S.
"You'd come home to an empty house instead of coming home to somebody there for you," said Elzein, 27, a U.S. citizen who owns a Houston valet company. "I don't even know how to think about that."
Yet prolonged absences have been the reality for U.S. citizens and their undocumented spouses and children who want to complete the legal residency process. By law, the illegal immigrants must first return to their home countries for consular interviews and then wait there -- often for months -- for approval of hardship waivers that allow them to return legally. And if they are denied the waivers, they can be barred from returning to the U.S. for up to a decade.
But plans by the Obama administration to streamline the waiver process and allow the relatives of U.S. citizens to file their applications without leaving the U.S. have given many families hope they won't have to spend much time apart.
Elzein learned last week that his Mexican wife, Gabriela Sandoval, had been approved for her immigrant visa, a first step toward getting her green card. The couple's immigration attorney, Haroen Calehr, had another bit of good news: Sandoval likely would be eligible to take advantage of the streamlined waiver processing, which U.S. immigration officials said is expected to take effect by the end of the year.
"She has to go (to Mexico) just for an interview, that's it," Elzein said. "She's not going to have to wait there for months."
1 million deportations
The administrative change, published in the Federal Register this year, has been widely applauded by immigrants and their advocates, even as they have assailed the Obama administration for its record-setting deportation numbers, with more than 1 million illegal immigrants removed in the past three years.
"You should not ever have to choose between your marriage and your country," said Paul Donnelly, a spokesman for American Families United, which supports the change in the waiver process. "It is simply bad for marriage to require husbands and wives to sleep in different countries. But that's what U.S. immigration laws does."
Two steps flipped
The change proposed by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services flips two steps in the process of applying for legal residency for the undocumented spouses and children of U.S. citizens, allowing them to apply for waivers before they travel to their home countries for interviews with consular officials.
"The impact is great, but the change in procedure is actually relatively minor," said Laurel Scott, a Houston immigration attorney.
Some of the comments published in the Federal Register showed strong opposition to the proposed rule change, calling it an "end run around Congress" and an "amnesty."
Maria Elena Garcia-Upson, a USCIS spokeswoman, said there is widespread confusion about the policy change. Many immigrants do not understand they will be required to return to their home countries for the consular interviews.
And, she said, many are failing to appear for their scheduled interviews abroad while they wait for the new policy to take effect.
In February, Hilda Bautista, 24, a University of Texas graduate, left Houston for her consular interview in Ciudad Juarez, one of Mexico's most dangerous cities. It was the first time Bautista had set foot in Mexico since she was 3 years old and her parents brought her to the U.S.
Before she left, her attorney told her about the proposed changes. Bautista said her mind was made up. She had postponed the trip before, hoping Congress would act on immigration reform, only to be disappointed. She was frustrated with being the only member of her family without papers, with being unable to use her biology degree.
"If I didn't take this step, I would always be wondering, 'What if? What if?'?" she said. "I would be at a standstill."
Bautista said she is slowly adjusting to life in Michoacan, Mexico, where she lives with relatives she remembered only from fuzzy, childhood memories. She misses her parents and brothers and sisters in Houston, she says, and "feeling safe."
She expects to find out this summer whether she will be approved for a waiver, or will face up to a 10-year bar from returning to the U.S.
"I really hope I get it," she said of the waiver, "but if not, then I have to make a life for myself somewhere."
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