The technical term is “paroled in place” – and it harbors a significant change in immigration policy that is affecting many families with members in the U.S. armed forces.

The new guidelines, which went into effect Nov. 15, allow the undocumented spouses, children and parents of military personnel to seek a resident visa –or be "paroled"— without having to leave the country.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has long had the power to stop deportations for relatives of military members and veterans, but those relatives still faced a Catch-22: Undocumented immigrants generally had to leave the U.S. in order to collect legal visas they had applied for through marriage to an American citizen or through some other family tie. But once outside the country, they could be barred from returning for up to a decade.

Former Department of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano began the policy informally in 2010, but it was not being followed consistently in immigration field offices across the country. There was no clear policy, for instance, about who exactly in the family could be covered. 

Until a couple of weeks ago, the application of that policy had been case-by-case, with very little written guidance about how it should be applied or even to whom. On Nov. 15, USCIS finally distributed a nine-page memorandum detailing the specifics of the policy.

Immediate family of veterans now should be granted parole in place absent any "adverse" factors such as a criminal record, Helen Parsonage, a lawyer who specializes in immigration issues and a partner at the law firm of Elliot Morgan Parsonage in Winston-Salem, N.C., told the Winston Salem Journal.

One of her clients is Alejandra King, a Mexican-born bilingual legal assistant at Parsonage’s firm, who is married to and has a child with Iraq War Marine Corps veteran, Charles King. Despite having been married for three years, it was only on the following business day, Monday Nov. 18, that King applied for a parole.

The Arizona Republic recently reported on Phoenix's José Zermeño, 53, an immigrant from Mexico who has lived in the U.S. for 30 years, and his son Gabriel, 21, an Arizona National Guardsman. "At any moment, I could be overseas fighting for my country and he could be getting deported by the same country I was supposed to be fighting for," Gabriel told the Republic.

Polls show that a majority of Americans support providing a path toward citizenship for immigrants living in the U.S. unlawfully. A Quinnipiac University poll conducted Nov. 6 to 11 of 2,545 registered voters across the country found that 57 percent support allowing "illegal immigrants" to stay and eventually apply for citizenship.

Despite that, efforts at passing immigration reform laws have met with stout opposition in the House, so the Obama administration's policy shift on parole in place can be seen as a small, administrative step that can be put into effect without Congressional approval.

Which isn't to minimize its effects. Margaret D. Stock, an Alaska-based immigration attorney and a retired Army Reserve lieutenant colonel, told the Associated Press that the directive would likely impact thousands of military families. "It is very significant," Stock said. "It will ease the strain on so many families and military members."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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