Currently, many illegal immigrants must leave the country before they can ask the federal government to waive a three- to 10-year ban on legally coming back to the U.S. The length of the ban depends on how long they have lived in the U.S. without permission.
On Friday, the Obama administration proposed changing the rule to let children and spouses ask the government to decide on the waiver request before they head to their home country to seek a visa to return here legally.
The illegal immigrants would still have to go abroad to finish the visa process, but getting a provisional waiver approved in advance would reduce the time they are out of the country from months to days or weeks, said Alejandro Mayorkas, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
The purpose is "to minimize the extent to which bureaucratic delays separate Americans from their families for long periods of time," Mayorkas told reporters.
It currently takes about six months for the government to issue a waiver, Mayorkas said.
The waiver shift is the latest move by President Barack Obama to make changes to immigration policy without congressional action. Congressional Republicans repeatedly have criticized the administration for policy changes they describe as providing "backdoor amnesty" to illegal immigrants.
The proposal also comes as Obama gears up for a re-election contest in which the support of Hispanic voters could prove a determining factor in a number of states. The administration hopes to change the rule later this year after taking public comments.
Republican Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas on Friday accused the president of putting the interests of illegal immigrants ahead of those of Americans.
"It seems President Obama plays by his own rules to push unpopular policies on the American people," the House Judiciary Committee chair said in a statement.
Immigrants who do not have criminal records and who have only violated immigration laws can win a waiver if they can prove their absence would cause an extreme hardship for their American spouse or parent. The government received about 23,000 hardship applications in 2011 and more than 70 percent were approved.
About 75 percent of the applications were filed by Mexicans, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Immigrant advocates have long complained about the current system, which can split up families for months or years. And since there's no guarantee a person will win a waiver to return, many immigrant families refuse to take the risk of going abroad to apply for one.
Laura Barajas, a 42-year-old stay-at-home mom in Orange County, California, is due to travel to Ciudad Juarez in two weeks to try to get her papers. She and her U.S. citizen husband are trying to stay positive, but she is afraid to leave him and their two young children behind.
"I don't want to be separated for a long time from my children," said Barajas, who came to the U.S. illegally to find work, then met her future husband and stayed. "I'm not going to risk taking them to a place that I don't even know after 18 years."
Pro-immigration activists and lawyers embraced the change, saying it would keep families together and encourage more people now in the United States illegally to emerge from the shadows and apply for visas. Some said it could even save lives.
Democratic Rep. Jared Polis of Colorado recalled the case of Tania Nava Palacios, who went to Ciudad Juarez -- a hotbed for drug-fueled violence -- with her American husband and son in pursuit of a waiver. Drug cartel members killed her husband last year, his office said in a statement.
Kelly Alfaro, of Washington state, said her husband, Guillermo, waited in Mexico for eight months last year after he had his visa interview in Ciudad Juarez.
"I was terrified for his safety because I know how dangerous it is there and I had no way of knowing how long he would have to stay in Mexico," she said.
Democratic lawmakers welcomed the Obama administration's move to change the immigration system by rulemaking after efforts at a legislative overhaul failed.
"Has it taken a while? Yes. Is it happening? Yes," said Democratic Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, who has encouraged such changes. "Am I looking forward to telling people to vote for him? Absolutely."
Immigration has become a difficult issue for Obama ahead of the November election. As a presidential candidate, he pledged to change what many consider to be a broken immigration system.
To that end, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced plans last year to review some 300,000 pending deportation cases in an effort to target criminal illegal immigrants, repeat immigration law violators and those who pose a national security or public safety threat.
Napolitano said the DHS would delay indefinitely the cases of many illegal immigrants who have no criminal record and those who have been arrested for only minor traffic violations or other misdemeanors. A pilot program is under way to begin reviewing the case.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton also issued a memo in June outlining how immigration authorities could use discretion in deciding which illegal immigrants to arrest and put into deportation proceedings.
Congressional Republicans have decried the policy changes, arguing that the Obama administration is circumventing Congress.
Several attempts at an immigration law overhaul have failed in recent years, including the so-called DREAM Act, which would have allowed for some young illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children to earn legal status if they went to college or joined the military.
Taxin reported from Santa Ana, California. Associated Press writers Elliot Spagat in San Diego and Alicia Caldwell in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.