In March, it will become easier for undocumented immigrants who are immediate relatives of a U.S. citizen to remain in this country while they pursue legal permanent residency, or a “green card.”

Beginning in March, undocumented immigrants will be able to seek a waiver –that would spare them serious penalties for their illegal status– while they attempt to legalize their status, said Homeland Security Janet Napolitano on Wednesday.

The most significant impact of the new rule is the ability of undocumented immigrants to stay with their relatives in the United States while they go through the process of trying to legalize. The current law requires such immigrants to return to their country to apply for a legal visa, and it can take more than six months before they can re-enter the United States, if they are approved.

Critics of the process said the long separation between the applicant and their relatives dissuaded many from coming forward to legalize their status.

In her announcement, Napolitano said: “This final rule facilitates the legal immigration process and reduces the amount of time that U.S. citizens are separated from their immediate relatives who are in the process of obtaining an immigrant visa.”

Undocumented immigrants applying for the waiver still must leave the United States at some point to finish the process at a U.S. consular office in the country of their citizenship. But now their time outside of the United States is expected to last only days or a few weeks, federal officials have said.

At present, undocumented immigrants can face a three-to-ten-year ban on legally coming back to the United States, depending on how long they have lived in this country illegally.

Under the new process, immigrants would be seeking a provisional waiver from that ban so that they can pursue legal permanent residency here.

The U.S. government received about 23,000 hardship applications in 2011 and more than 70 percent were approved, the official said.

Proponents of strict immigration enforcement have criticized such moves, calling policies and programs that give breaks to undocumented immigrants “amnesty” and “rewarding law-breakers.”

Advocates of more lenient immigration policies lauded the new rule.

“The family unity waiver eliminates unnecessary bureaucratic red tape and focuses on what is important: keeping families together,” said Kica Matos, Director of Immigrant Rights and Racial Justice for the Center for Community Change. “We are pleased the rule will finally be implemented very soon.”

“(We) are pleased that the Obama administration is using its authority to keep families together and we look forward to more leadership as we embark on the long term solution of immigration reform,” Matos said.

Elizabeth Llorente can be reached elizabeth.llorente@foxnewslatino.com

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