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Originally published January 11, 2012 at 3:01 PM | Page modified January 11, 2012 at 5:01 PM

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A better way for a nation of immigrants: Reunite families faster

American families with spouses and children who are illegal immigrants could be reunited faster as they obey the laws in pursuit of legal residency. President Obama's proposal is good for families, good for the system.

Seattle Times Editorial

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PRESIDENT Obama proposes an administrative remedy to an immigration procedure that can separate spouses and families for years. Yes, indeed, just fix it.

Current law discourages illegal immigrants with an American family member from applying for legal residency because of a mandatory return to their nation of origin.

Americans can apply for their immigrant spouses and children, but the law requires them to return to their home countries to receive their visas. The law bars return for three years.

There is a waiver process, but the predictable bureaucratic path still includes a separation that can last as long as a decade. This is grounded in federal law that dates to 1996. The waiver may or may not be granted, and the family is apart in the meantime.

Given that frightening prospect and all its emotional and financial complications for parents and children, people choose to stay under the radar and break the law.

The Obama administration offers a subtle adjustment that changes the dynamic and timelines.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services of the Department of Homeland Security would grant a provisional waiver before illegal immigrants return to their home countries to get their visas.

Before families were separated, the paperwork would be in process and the wait-time abroad would be dramatically reduced.

Human-rights groups across the country, including Seattle's OneAmerica, are supporting what they call the Family Unity Waiver. This will touch lives in Washington.

Predictability would increase confidence and participation in the system. The emphasis should always be to make the immigration system work, not maximize the likelihood the law will be ignored.

The president's Republican critics are howling about a cheap political trick to garner support in an election year. For a party that prides itself on being family-centric, GOP taunts ring especially hollow. In the absence of comprehensive immigration reform by Congress, these fixes must be done.

In the 1980s, President Reagan supported a broad amnesty program that brought millions of illegal immigrants into the sunlight. The Obama White House is looking at a change with a more modest reach, but a dramatic impact on Americans and their spouses who are illegal immigrants.

This modest approach helps maintain families and promotes respect for the law.

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