New York (CNN) -- The administration of President Barack Obama proposed Friday a change to immigration rules meant to cut the time undocumented spouses and children of U.S. citizens are separated from their families while they seek legal status.
Most immigrants living in the United States illegally who marry U.S. citizens or are children of U.S. citizens are eligible for green cards, which allow them to live and work in the country permanently. Under current law, however, they must apply for visas from their home countries while being barred re-entry for three to 10 years, depending how long they lived in the United States without documentation.
Families affected by this Catch-22 can petition the government to allow them back into the United States before the time period has elapsed by asking for a waiver and proving that prolonged separation would cause a U.S. citizen to suffer extreme hardship.
Under the proposed rule change, qualifying illegal immigrants could remain in the United States while they apply for that waiver and as the government decides whether to grant it. Immigrants who obtain the waiver would still be required to leave the United States to apply for a visa, but would be all but guaranteed the possibility of a quick return.
The new rule could reduce separations from years to weeks or months and would represent a huge step forward in streamlining the process of obtaining waivers for undocumented immigrants married to U.S. citizens, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Alejandro Mayorkas told reporters.
Last year, USCIS received some 23,000 waiver applications. Mayorka said that number would have been higher were it not for the current policy, which can result in indefinite and prolonged separations.
"They're unwilling to risk the extreme hardship to a U.S. citizen relative by virtue of lengthy separations," he said. "We may well not see waiver applications from people who would otherwise qualify."
Mayorka stressed that the standards used to establish eligibility for a hardship waiver will not change.
But, according to Ira Mehlman, with the Federation of American Immigration Reform, which seeks to reduce the number of immigrants, that doesn't make the proposal more acceptable.
"The bar re-entry rule was established as a deterrent to people violating immigration law -- that coming illegally could result in long-term denial back to the U.S. ," Mehlman told CNN after the proposed rule was announced. "The administration is undermining this important deterrent."
Supporters of the rule applauded the administration's effort to cut red tape and reunite families.
"This evens the playing field," said David Leopold, former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "I think it is going to encourage people who are undocumented to come out."
The proposed change is open for public comment.