In potentially good news on the immigration front, the Obama Administration will change the rules for immigrants who apply for legal status. They will allow children and spouses of US citizens applying for legal status to go through the process while staying in the country, rather than the current rule, where the applicant has to leave the country while requesting the waiver. This needlessly separates families and keeps undocumented immigrants who could win legal status in the shadows. It was a major point of emphasis from Rep. Luis Gutierrez, one of the biggest champions on immigration in Congress, when he spoke to me at last year’s Netroots Nation. Here’s what he had to say on the issue:

Next, Gutierrez seeks a better definition of “extreme hardship” so that families who cannot travel to get their visa, or who have small children or are in the military, can stay in the country for a period of time. “If you’re undocumented and you get a visa, you have to stay out of the country for 10 years,” said Gutierrez. “An American citizen has to travel to Ciudad Juarez, which is the only place in Mexico to get a visa. And Americans are told by the State Department not to travel there because of the danger! That’s an extreme hardship.”

That’s essentially what the Administration will attack here. “The new rule would let children and spouses of citizens ask the government to decide on the waiver request before the illegal immigrant heads to his or her home country to apply for a visa,” according to the report. Eventually, the undocumented immigrant would have to travel to get the visa, but with all the affairs in order beforehand, they can just go back, pick up the visa, and return, rather than having to separate from their families for years.

This is hardly “back-door amnesty,” as Republicans will surely charge. It’s a way to streamline the extreme hardship process, in the best interest of families. The government accepted the extreme hardship cases of about 70% of applicants last year. But this would make the process actually work, turning an ordeal that lasts months or years into one that lasts days or weeks. The rule will not take effect until later in the year, with the proposal just hitting the Federal Register today.

Combined with the deportation review of about 300,000 cases, which is still getting off the ground in the nation’s immigration courts, the Administration is basically following Gutierrez’ recommendations for what they can do outside of the legislative process to make the immigration system work better and help keep families united. Ultimately, you will need a legislative solution to the problem of 11-12 million undocumented immigrants in the country. And the deportation review has progressed too slowly, while the actual deportations accelerated. So these are good steps to take, but immigration advocates still need to show vigilance to get a workable solution.