President Obama eases immigration laws for undocumented folks with family in the U.S. (Photo via pennstatelive/ Flickr)

President Barack Obama has eased immigration laws for undocumented immigrants with family in the United States. (Photo: pennstatelive/Flickr.)

By Ashley Lopez
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

The Obama administration has announced a significant change to U.S. immigration policy. Undocumented immigrants with family in the United States may now become permanent residents.

Barack Obama’s first term as president was tough for undocumented immigrants. His administration deported more than 1 million immigrants, many of whom were not criminals. PBS Frontline reported on some of the fallout of Obama’s immigration enforcement system as well as stories about hidden abuse in immigrant detention centers.

In fact, according to a 2011 investigation by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, a program aimed at removing undocumented immigrants who were violent criminals was used to target and deport immigrants with no criminal backgrounds.

According to the FCIR investigation:

Twenty-eight percent of the 75,461 immigrants deported since Secure Communities’ inception in 2008 have been “non-criminal” immigrants, while just 23 percent of those detained and deported have convictions for violent crimes such as murder or rape. Federal officials classify “non-criminals” as those who have been booked by police for an alleged crime but never convicted.

Secure Communities has been particularly effective in detaining and deporting non-criminals from Florida, where 42 percent of those detained did not have criminal convictions. Only 20 percent of those detained in Florida had felony convictions for violent crimes.

Immigrant justice groups have long criticized the president for deporting immigrants at such a high rate over the past few years.

Despite the backlash, however, Latinos in the United States helped catapult the president to his second term in November. Obama had signaled throughout the campaign — and more strongly right after his win — that he would revisit immigration reform.

Now, Obama has signaled that he intends to make good on his promises.

According to the Los Angeles Times:

Illegal immigrants who are immediate relatives of American citizens will have an easier path to permanent residency under a new Obama administration rule that could affect as many as 1 million of the estimated 11 million people unlawfully in the United States.

The rule issued Wednesday by the Department of Homeland Security aims to reduce the time illegal immigrants are separated from their U.S. families while seeking legal status, officials said.

Beginning March 4, illegal immigrants who can demonstrate that time apart from an American spouse, child or parent would create “extreme hardship” can apply for a visa without leaving the United States. Once approved, applicants would be required to leave briefly in order to return to their native country and pick up their visa.

Sources said that the administration might expand the changes to include relatives of lawful permanent residents.

Last year, Obama endorsed another rule change that allows undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children to be shielded from deportation.

Obama’s decision to grant residency status to undocumented immigrants with family in the United States could have a large impact in Florida, which is home, by conservative estimates, to 700,000 undocumented immigrants.