Jessica Paolino was born and raised on Long Island, but a change in immigration rules announced Wednesday hit home.
Paolino is among tens of thousands of Americans whose undocumented immigrant spouses will be allowed to stay in the country while requests related to their visa petitions are processed.
Before Wednesday's U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services policy decision, which goes into effect March 4, spouses or immediate family members of U.S. citizens had to go to visa interviews in their home countries, without knowing if they could return.
The move abroad included waiting months as applicants sought waivers for three- or 10-year re-entry bans on people who stayed illegally in the United States for more than six months. The bans were enacted by a 1996 immigration law.
"Nobody wants their husband or their spouse to be taken away from them," said Paolino, 34, of Huntington. "That is a huge fear."
With her 9-month-old daughter, Abygail, she is waiting for a decision about her petition to gain permanent residency for her husband, José Dagoberto Calderón, a Salvadoran immigrant who works in carpentry and is "trying to do the right thing."
The rule change adds to moves by President Barack Obama to more tightly focus enforcement measures on criminal and high-priority cases while giving immigrants with deeper roots more chances to stay in the United States legally.
"It's excellent policy," Sperling said. "These are the top-priority people, the people who are married to U.S. citizens, have U.S. citizen children, have been paying their taxes."
Undocumented immigrants petitioned by American spouses, parents or children will still have to attend visa interviews in their countries of origin. But they will have a chance obtain waivers before they leave if they can convince immigration officers that re-entry bans would cause extreme hardship.
"This new process facilitates the legal immigration process and reduces long periods of separation between U.S. citizens and their immediate relatives," said immigration agency director Alejandro Mayorkas.
Rosemary Jenks, government relations director for Numbers USA, a Washington, D.C., organization that favors stricter immigration controls, called the rule change "yet another in a series of winks and nods by the administration to illegal immigration."
Leonides and Beatriz López, a couple in Brentwood, said they were hopeful that their attorney could win a waiver before she goes to Colombia for her interview. They want their daughter, Melanie, 4, to grow up with both parents.
"For me this is everything," said Beatriz López, 35. "For me the most important thing is to have a family."Mary Giovagnoli, director of the Immigration Policy Center in Washington, D.C., which supports wider reforms favoring immigrants, said the rule change will encourage more immigrants to come out of the shadows.
"It really was sort of a Catch-22 for many people who applied [for waivers] to return to their countries because they could end up being separated from their families," Giovagnoli said. "It will really allow more people to hopefully come forward, apply for adjustment of status, get this waiver while they are still in the country and it will streamline the process."