(Reuters) - The government announced Friday it will reduce the time that U.S. citizens are separated from spouses and children who have been in the country illegally and are forced to leave for as long as 10 years while their visa requests are processed.

The move drew immediate praise from Hispanic groups, a key constituency for President Barack Obama in the 2012 election year.

The purpose of the new process is to reduce the time that U.S. families remain separated while their relative proceeds through the immigrant visa process, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said in its announcement.

Democrats and Republicans have said Hispanic voters could decide the 2012 election. Latino groups have been disappointed in Obama's lack of progress on immigration reform and have disapproved of a stepped-up deportation program.

The largest Hispanic civil rights group in the United States called the current system unconscionable and praised the plan.

This sensible and compassionate proposal helps bring much-needed sanity to an often senseless process, said Janet Murguía, president of National Council of La Raza.

A group that works with Arab immigrants said the changes would help thousands of families who are kept apart because of the current process.

The modifications ... are an important and humane first step toward alleviating that pain and suffering, said Nadia Tonova, director for the National Network for Arab American Communities.

The changes will not take effect for months. First, the government needs to propose a detailed rule and then it will take public comments, the USCIS said.

(Reporting by Roberta Rampton; Editing by Xavier Briand)