By: Julia Preston
The Obama administration issued a new policy on Friday that will allow immigrants in the United States illegally who are close relatives of active military troops and veterans to stay and move toward becoming permanent residents.
The long-awaited memorandum, coming after three years of deliberations by Department of Homeland Security officials, was an effort to untangle knots in immigration law that left many soldiers worried that their immigrant family members could be deported while they were deployed.
The administration applied the policy broadly, extending it to all active-duty members of the armed forces, to reservists including the National Guard, and to all veterans. Their spouses, children and parents will be eligible for a “parole in place,” a term that means they will be authorized to remain in the United States and many can proceed with applications for legal residency.
“This is an enormous step forward for military families and military readiness,” said Margaret D. Stock, a lawyer at Cascadia Cross-Border Law in Anchorage, who is a retired Army Reserve lieutenant colonel. “These problems had been a complete nightmare for many military people to deal with.”
The shift comes as legislation to grant legal status to millions of illegal immigrants has stalled in Congress, with Republican leaders in the House saying this week that they would not hold immigration votes this year or enter negotiations over a broad bill that the Senate passed in June. Obama administration officials said the new rules were based on existing statutes, and did not create any new legal status that would require action by Congress.
“In order to reduce the uncertainty our active-duty and retired military personnel face because of the immigration status of their family members, we have decided to clarify existing policies,” said Peter Boogaard, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security.
Immigrants without papers generally have to leave the country to collect visas they applied for through marriage to an American citizen or some other family tie. But, in a notorious Catch-22, once those immigrants leave they are barred from returning for years. Under the new policy, those immigrants who are in military families will not have to leave to complete their visa applications.
Faced with the legal quandary, many service members chose not to apply for papers for immigrant spouses and relatives, often keeping their immigration status secret. As a result, there is no way of knowing how many immigrants will be affected by the new policy, but it could be tens of thousands.
Immigrants involved will have work permits and will have to renew their documents yearly.
Several Hispanic organizations, including the League of United Latin American Citizens, hailed the policy, noting that many Hispanics serve in the armed forces. In addition to American citizens, permanent residents and some other legal immigrants are eligible to serve in the military.
But many immigrant groups immediately called on President Obama to extend the reprieve to more foreigners here illegally.
“The administration’s action clearly shows that the president can use his power to stop the pain in our communities and grant relief to our families,” said Cristina Jimenez, managing director of United We Dream, a youth organization.