For thousands of American families, this reform will have a tremendous impact.

Obama administration officials announced on Friday that they will propose a fix to a notorious snag in immigration law that will spare hundreds of thousands of American citizens from prolonged separations from immigrant spouses and children.

The change that immigration officials are offering would benefit United States citizens who are married to or have children who are illegal immigrants. It would correct a bureaucratic Catch-22 that those Americans now confront when their spouses or children apply to become legal permanent residents.

Although the tweak that officials of the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services are proposing appears small, immigration lawyers and advocates for immigrants say it will make a great difference for countless Americans. Thousands will no longer be separated from loved ones, they said, and the change could encourage Americans to come forward to apply to bring illegal immigrant family members into the legal system.

As the L.A. Times report explained, under the status quo, those in the country illegally are expected to leave to apply for a green card. “Depending on how long they’ve lived in America, once they leave they are barred from returning for up to 10 years. They can claim that their absence would pose a hardship for their spouse or parent and ask the Department of Homeland Security to waive the re-entry restrictions. But to do that, they must first travel to a consular office abroad and begin a process that can take months or even years, experts say.”

What’s more, those waivers are often extremely difficult to get, leading to mass separations of families for several years.

Here’s what we’ll see going forward.

Now, Citizenship and Immigration Services proposes to allow the immigrants to obtain a provisional waiver in the United States, before they leave for their countries to pick up their visas. Having the waiver in hand will allow them to depart knowing that they will almost certainly be able to return, officials said. The agency is also seeking to sharply streamline the process to cut down the wait times for visas to a few weeks at most.

Charles Kuck, an immigration lawyer in Atlanta who is a former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, told the NYT, “This will open up a huge door to bring a large number of people into the light. There are hundreds of thousands of people who came to the United States illegally who are married to U.S. citizens who have not taken advantage of the waiver that is currently available. This changes their lives.”

Ideally, this would be part of a larger immigration-reform initiative, but the White House believes — correctly — that such an effort is impossible given Republican extremism and the results of the 2010 midterms.

Obama administration officials are therefore left to use their regulatory powers to take incremental steps.

That isn’t to say this is a small improvement. On the contrary, for those affected, it’s a critical breakthrough.

As for the politics, the White House’s move is likely to win praise from Latino voters — a key 2012 constituency — many of whom are already looking at the Republican alternative with warranted disdain.

* edited for clarity

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.