Sonoma County immigration advocates welcomed the news Friday that President Barack Obama plans to ease rules that force the separation of some immigrant families.

"If it goes into effect, it will help a number of people," said Richard Coshnear, a Santa Rosa immigration attorney and a member of the Committee for Immigrant Rights of Sonoma County.

The change would allow undocumented residents who are spouses or children of an American citizen to stay in the country while they seek a waiver from the rule that requires them to wait three to 10 years before they can enter the country legally.

Most such applications eventually are granted.

Coshnear said that undocumented immigrants currently qualify for a waiver if they can show that their family member who is a U.S. citizen would experience extreme hardship because of the separation. However, to get the waiver, they must leave the country, and often wait a long time before the waiver is granted.

Manuel Rivera, immigration services coordinator for Catholic Charities in Santa Rosa, greeted the new policy with cautious optimism, saying anyone who might benefit will need to make sure they had a full understanding of all the implications before applying for a waiver.

But he called the change "very, very good news," and said it already has generated many calls and inquiries to his office.

"I've seen cases where the wife of a U.S. citizen had to spend four years separated from their U.S. citizen husband," Rivera said.

More often it's about eight months or a year, with the "very lucky" winning waivers after "one week, two weeks, two months."

"The person has to be ready and prepared to spend a year outside the United States separated from the rest of the family," Rivera said.

He also cautioned that, even with the policy shift, non-citizens can be barred from the country if officials learn of immigration fraud or certain criminal convictions that make them inadmissible.

He also underscored the fact that new policy does not apply to non-citizen parents of U.S. citizens. Parents who leave after a year or more of illegal presence in the country still face a 10-year bar, he said.

"It's a very sensitive issue dealing with immigration," Rivera said, but "people are very happy to hear" Obama's proposal.