This week, USCIS launched the new I-601A provisional waiver program, allowing certain relatives of American citizens who are in the country illegally to get a decision on their waiver case, before leaving the United States.

The exact numbers are not known, but it is clear that the new rules will impact thousands of US families.  For those who wouldn’t undertake the artificially-imposed, but very real risk of “touching back” to their home country under the old rules, the new regulations mean that it’s finally safe to complete the residency process.  For thousands of others, the goodwill shown by immigration authorities in trying to alleviate the hardship created by the meaningless departure requirement has inspired them to start a process that was unthinkable before the new rules were put into place.

There is no question that the new rule is an overwhelmingly positive development for American families.  Immigrants and their citizen family members now have some measure of peace, knowing that their loved one will not be stranded in a foreign country for an unknown length of time, potentially risking life and limb, while waiting for a decision on their case.  USCIS’s continued impressive handling of deferred action applications has shown that the agency has the capacity to handle a large volume of applications, and get it done right.  And, promisingly, USCIS has indicated that the provisional waiver process should be extended to qualified relatives in other family categories, as resources allow.

In the context of immigration reform, this “solution” to a problem that never should have existed in the first place this begs the question of why we punish American families (and U.S. employers) by forcing the very immigrants that already have a path to citizenship to undergo separation, financial and emotional hardship, and risk their safety to attend a 10 minute interview abroad, when the same process can be achieved at a local USCIS Field Office.

Unfortunately, for many other equally qualified relatives, the new provisions will do nothing to fix their immigration problems, and they and their family will remain stranded by the unworkable scheme Congress put into place nearly two decades ago.  Moreover, the new processing rules do nothing to fix the draconian “permanent bar” which results in de facto exile of a decade or more for immigrant family members.  As we move forward to try to find real solutions to our broken immigration system, Congress would be wise to consider the real cost to American families and U.S. competitiveness when trying to retain the failed policies or create new penalties which do nothing but harm the very people who already have a path to citizenship.

Regrettably, despite numerous comments from immigrant communities and advocates, the new rules perpetuated some of the absurdities of the process.  Instead of fixing the problems identified by experts in the field, the agencies inserted a glaringly punitive rule, inexplicably excluding individuals who had already started the process and had already paid the required government fees.   The irony is that this change serves only to leave out in the cold those families who were playing by the (old) rules.

As a result, thousands who had bravely begun the very last chapter of the application process have been stranded—ironically, after most put their cases on hold because the agency announced the proposed process over a year ago in draft form.  Under the final rules, those individuals cannot take advantage of the new procedures and must risk waiting outside the US for an indeterminate amount of time, without any sense of whether their case might—or might not be granted.

Not even filing a new consular application will allow a person with an approved petition to benefit from the new procedures.  The only way to have the same protections as other families appears to be withdrawing all applications and starting a case over from the very beginning.  In practical terms, this means that applicants who were nearly at the front of the line after years of processing, are being forced to choose between going forward, with all the uncertainty and risk of the “old” system, or abandoning their applications, getting into the back of the line, waiting years until they might see a new appointment and, to add insult to injury—paying twice for the privilege.

So, is there any reason these families are being singled out and put at risk?  No one involved in the process seems to have an answer, much less a defensible reason for this oversight.  If this feels like being in a long line at the grocery store and being relieved to see a new lane open, only to have the clerk take the guy behind you first, you’re not far off.  Except in this analogy, you not only get stuck at the back of the line, you end up paying for your groceries twice.

Written by Laura Lichter, AILA President