Like most expecting parents, Alfonso and Norma Esparza can't wait to add another baby to the family, their fourth child, as early as next week.

But their lives also have been filled with fear and anxiety because of the possibility that their family would be torn apart, and that Norma and the kids would be forced to live in the dangerous border town of Juarez as she waited for a provisional waiver to live in the United States.

Alfonso is a naturalized citizen who had come to the country on a green card. Norma fled an abusive boyfriend in Aguascalientes, Mexico, and came to the United States to find refuge with a sister living here. She didn't have documentation to stay, but met Alfonso, married him, and together they have three children

Under current law, undocumented residents must go to their home country to apply for a visa. If they've been here longer than a year, they face a 10-year ban on returning to the United States, unless they get a provisional waiver recognizing that their family would face "extreme hardship" if they did not return.

For Mexico, that process can take a year or more. The only consulate that processes the waivers is in Juarez, where people waiting to legally return to the U.S. have been scammed, robbed and killed.

But an executive rule change posted recently by Janet Napolitano, secretary of Homeland Security, will dramatically lessen the pain for the Esparza family and others like them, affecting many Minnesota families in which one parent is a citizen but the other lacks documentation. Instead of having to leave the country first, Esparza can begin the waiver process in the United States. The new rule will take effect in March, and the process might be reduced to days or weeks instead of months. The change will help thousands of immigrants married to U.S. citizens stay together while they become legal.

The current law was designed to deter illegal immigration, but it has not, according to John Keller, executive director of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota. He says, in fact, that it has deterred people from taking a chance to secure legal citizenship and has broken up those families that do.

Alfonso works full time at a pork-processing plant in Worthington. Norma is a stay-at-home mom who takes care of their kids, ages 4, 5 and 2. Because Alfonso works all day, she would have had to take the children with her to Juarez, but now it's likely the family can go together.

"This law will change our lives," Norma said. "It will allow our family to be together. My husband won't have to lose a lot of time at his job."

Kathy Klos, staff attorney for the law center, has been working with the Esparzas on the case. She said Norma has been worried about getting picked up by immigration while she's going through the process but doesn't yet have legal status. She knows that immigration has locked up mothers even if they have very young children, so she's scared of being picked up by immigration. "[Norma's] husband has been so nervous about her being undocumented, and about beginning the process because he's afraid they'd have to be apart for a long time," said Klos. "The timing [with a new baby] couldn't be more perfect."

The Esparzas will not have to go through the trauma of a couple I wrote about in 2011, Raul and Emily Garzon. Raul entered the country illegally as a teen. He fell in love with Emily and they had a child together. When they decided to marry legally, Raul was sent back to Mexico to await a waiver even though Emily was pregnant.

While Raul was gone, Emily had the baby, Mya. He was not allowed back for the birth. While Raul was in an interview to come back to the U.S., he got a call saying Mya had died. He finally was allowed back for the funeral.

"This law being changed is a huge step forward for the U.S.," said Emily Garzon. "Before the law was changed, it seemed that the immigration process was a punishment that families had to go through to have any kind of normalcy. Time is precious and should not be taken for granted. I hope this new law will prevent many families from going through the pain and stress Raul and I went through to get him here legally." 612-673-1702