President Barack Obama is proposing one of the bigger changes to federal immigration policy in years.
Under the new protocol, undocumented spouses and children of U.S. citizens would be able to apply for citizenship ,or at least legal resident status ,without first leaving the country. Under current guidelines, immigrants living in the country illegally must leave the country while waiting for the U.S. government to make a determination about their applications.
And if they're caught in the country, they can face anywhere from a three to 10 year ban before being allowed to apply. The Obama administration says this is a way to keep families together, while critics say it amounts to a backdoor amnesty policy.
Jackie Bricker, wife of an illegal immigrant, said her family was facing the prospect of her husband filling out the paperwork to be admitted to the country legally, but being separated while the government processed the application.
"Together, we have four children. I do work, but I work around my kids, trying to do everything I can to be a stay-at-home mom," Bricker said. "Then what do we do? He's the bread-winner. He brings in the money. What do we do? He's gone. How long is he going to be gone for? When is he going to come back? When am I going to see him? When are his children going to see him?"
Immigration Attorney Richard Hujber said the new rules would give families like the Brickers a chance to stay together. In the past, he's cautioned his clients that before they apply, they should be prepared to be apart for months, or even years.
"Without knowing what the actual results will be, you're really rolling the dice by leaving the country," Hujber said. "By leaving the country, you're subjecting yourself to a bar to coming back to the United States."
Hujber said it's a huge risk — and it's a huge barrier to getting undocumented immigrants to embrace the legal process.
"Most clients, when I tell them this, say they're not going to do this. They'd rather wait in the shadows, wait for an amnesty, wait for a reform in the law," he said.
According to Hujber, the new policy allows federal officials to grant a waiver from the departure requirement based on "extreme hardship."
But what that means is up to individual officials to decide. For some, Hujber said, that means that this is a real marriage and the spouse would suffer. For others, it can be so severe that they must have a medical condition for which they can't get adequate treatment in their home country.
Bricker said she and her husband are preparing to fight for the waiver in order to stay together and get permission for him to stay in the country while the U.S. considers his application for legal, permanent resident status.
Hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants are expected to be covered by this new policy.