Yesterday, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced a new rule that allows individuals to apply for the family unity waiver while in the U.S., which is an important step toward more sensible immigration policies that will help promote child well-being and family unity.

Currently, when an immediate family member of a U.S. citizen is undocumented and wishes to apply for legal permanent resident (LPR) status, that individual must return to their country of origin and face a 3- or 10-year waiting period, called a bar to reentry, before they can return to the U.S.. Individuals can have this waiting period waived (the family unity waiver) if they can prove that their bar to reentry causes extreme hardship for a U.S. citizen spouse or parent, but they must apply for the family unity waiver from their country of origin. As a result, families are often separated for months or years, resulting in financial and other hardship for family members who remain in the U.S. and subjecting individuals to long waiting periods abroad, often in dangerous conditions.

The new rule, which goes into effect on March 3rd, allows the spouses, children, and parents (if their citizen children are at least 21-years-old) of U.S. citizens to apply for and receive a family unity waiver while still in the United States. This will help individuals avoid the long waiting periods and resulting family separation that can cause extreme hardship for families. While these individuals still must travel abroad to receive a visa from their country of origin, they will go with the waiver in hand and be separated from their families for days or weeks instead of months or years.

This rule adjustment is a necessary change. Our current immigration policies combined with increased enforcement have a devastating impact on children and families across the country, as evidence by some alarming numbers. A DHS report revealed that nearly 205,000 parents of U.S. citizen children were deported in the 26 months between July 1, 2010 and Sept. 31, 2012. Another report by the Applied Research Center estimates that 5,100 children remain in foster care as a result of their parents’ deportation or detention, while thousands more are being forced to move to a country they may have never known or staying behind with relatives or friends.

While the new process will help keep families together, it does not entirely address the issues above. It does not apply to family members of LPR petitioners and current law limits the process to those individuals who can establish extreme hardship to a U.S. citizen spouse or parent, but not a U.S. citizen child. Research has consistently shown that separation from a parent is a traumatic experience for any child, impacting long-term health, academic development, and overall well-being. Given that 4.5 million U.S. citizen children have at least one undocumented parent, it’s important that Congress address these issues with more comprehensive solutions soon.

The family unity waiver is a critical step in the right direction to provide our children and families with the relief they so urgently need. We commend USCIS for the proposed change and look forward to full implementation of this new policy.