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Proposed Change To Immigration Policy Brings Hope To Families

Rising deportations has soured many Latino voters on Obama. But a proposal to help some illegal immigrants to stay could change that.

About 23,000 undocumented immigrants left the country last year to apply for ...


Above: About 23,000 undocumented immigrants left the country last year to apply for a green card and then a waiver to get back into the United States.


Immigrant families in Las Vegas are celebrating a proposal by the Obama administration to relax an immigration proposal. For one family, news of the proposal stopped their separation.

Obama to Visit Battleground State of Nevada

President Barack Obama’s tour continues on Thursday with a trip to Nevada, a state he won in 2008 with a great deal of support from Latino voters. He plans to discuss energy during his Las Vegas visit, before he heads to Denver, Colorado, and then to Ann Arbor, Michigan to talk about college affordability.

Obama has disappointed many Hispanics with his immigration record, particularly the surge of deportations under his watch. But his administration has come out with a proposal to loosen up one immigration procedure just in time for the 2012 campaign.

The Las Vegas couple featured in this story, Enrique and Ramona, may stand to benefit from the proposed change.

— Enrique has this to say about the first time he noticed Ramona, a pretty brunette from Mexico.

“It was as if I had seen the most beautiful girl in the whole world standing in front of me,” said Enrique, a construction worker. “And from then on we've been together.”

She’s also smitten with him.

“It’s been about 10 years,” Ramona said. “And it still feels like the first day, right Enrique?”

The couple is now raising four children in Las Vegas. But things became complicated. Ramona is undocumented, which is why we aren’t using the couples’ last names. Her marriage to Enrique, a U.S. citizen, wasn’t enough to make her legal.

All the lawyers said the same thing.

“Your wife, there is no access to her changing her legal status in this country,” said Enrique, paraphrasing the attorneys. “She's going to have to leave.”

Leave, and go back to Mexico indefinitely. Ramona would have to apply for a green card from the U.S. consulate in Ciudad Juárez. She would face a three to ten year ban from coming back to the United States. The only way to return to her family sooner would be if she qualified for a hardship waiver - meaning if she could prove her American family needed her.

But that waiver is not guaranteed, and could take months, even years to process, while she waited in Mexico.

So she put off applying for her green card; it was just too risky.

Finally, Ramona made her appointment for January, in Juárez.

She was nervous and scared, not knowing when she would come back. Still, she packed her bags. She trained a housekeeper to take care of her kids in her absence, since Enrique often travels for work.

And then, on Jan. 6, just days before her flight to Mexico, she happened to turn on the morning news.

“I turned on the TV and heard new immigration rules,” Ramona said.

She heard the Obama administration wants to change the immigration rules so immigrants just like her could stay in the U.S. while they apply for hardship waivers. That way, when applicants travel to consulates for a green card, they can go with a waiver in hand and certainty that they can return to the U.S.

“For me, it was a miracle,” she said. “Because I was just days from leaving.”

Enrique added: “It was like a new chance.”

Ramona cancelled her trip to Mexico. She wants to wait and see what happens.

So far, Alejandro Mayorkas - the director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service -has only announced his intention to propose a regulatory change on this issue. It would not need Congress’ approval, but any concrete change will likely take several months to implement.

The proposal only applies to undocumented immigrants who have a U.S. citizen spouse or parent who is sponsoring their green card application.

Nevertheless, the change would impact tens of thousands of people.

Last year, 23,000 immigrants went back to their countries to ask for green cards, and then applied for waivers to come back. Of those, some 17,000 waivers were granted.

Many more immigrants were likely eligible to apply for a green card, but didn’t take the risk for fear of being denied a waiver while abroad.

At Hermandad Mexicana, a Las Vegas organization that helps immigrants, the proposal has created a buzz. Janette Amador answers the phones, which she says have been ringing with calls about waivers.

“People have been awaiting a reform for a long time, and they constantly call in to see if any laws have changed,” Amador said. “So there is a lot of excitement right now for that.”

Immigration reform has long been a top issue for politicians courting Latino voters. It was a campaign promise in 2008 that President Barack Obama never delivered. The Dream Act, a bill that would create a path to citizenship for young undocumented immigrants who attend college or join the military, has also stalled - though the President voiced his support for the bill in his recent State of the Union address.

University of Nevada, Las Vegas political scientist Ken Fernandez says this latest proposal to help some green card seekers is a nod to Latinos, though a modest one.

“This is a white flag saying: ‘Hey, we don't want to alienate your group, but again we don't want to be seen, being accused of having amnesty,’” Fernandez said. “People are already accusing this fairly modest proposal of being way too radical and approximating amnesty.”

Those criticisms came from pro-enforcement Republicans, like Congressman Lamar Smith (R-Texas), and indicate how polarized the issue of immigration reform is in this Congress.

For his part, President Obama needs enthusiastic turnout among Latino voters to win reelection. But Latinos have been hit disproportionately hard by unemployment and the housing crisis, and their excitement for the president has waned. While polls show that these voters still favor the president over Republican candidates, he can’t take their support for granted.

“The major concern is that they stay home in 2012, which would have a devastating effect on some very important races, especially in Nevada,” Fernandez said.

As for Enrique, he’s planning to cast his vote in November for Obama. After all, his administration's proposal may keep Enrique's family together.

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