Biden opens path for 500,000 illegal immigrants married to US citizens to gain citizenship

A senior administration official says as many as half a million families could benefit from the new program

Andrew Feinberg,Martha McHardy
Tuesday 18 June 2024 20:50 BST
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President Biden is expected to unveil a new regulation allowing undocumented spouses of Americans to apply for legal residency.
President Biden is expected to unveil a new regulation allowing undocumented spouses of Americans to apply for legal residency. (AFP via Getty Images)
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Louise Thomas

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President Joe Biden has unveiled a new program that will give a path to citizenship for people who are illegally in the United States but are married to Americans, as well as people who graduate from American universities and receive offers for high-skilled jobs.

Biden announced the new program at a White House event on Tuesday to mark the 12-year anniversary of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. The program shields some undocumented immigrants who were brought to the US as children from deportation and provides them with legal work authorization.

He said the new path for high-skilled graduates would benefit “people, including ‘dreamers,’ who have graduated from US colleges and universities, landed jobs in high demand, high skilled professions that we need to have grow to see our economy grow.”

“I want those who've been educated us, college universities, put their skills and knowledge to work for here in America,” he said.

Biden also said the new program to aid undocumented immigrants who are married to Americans is about “keeping families together,”

“These couples have been raising families, sending their kids to church and school, paying taxes, contributing our country for every for 10 years or more,” he said, adding later that the average amount of time a person eligible for the program has been in the US is 23 years or more, during which they’ve lived with “fear and uncertainty.”

“We can fix that, and that's what I'm going to do today,” he said.

Biden added that the current process for people who are undocumented but married to Americans “is cumbersome, risky, and separates families” because it requires such persons to leave the country for ten years before becoming eligible for a spousal visa.

“They have to leave their families in America with no assurance that they’ll be allowed back in the United States. So they stay in America, but in the shadows, living in constant fear of deportation,” he said.

According to a senior administration official who briefed reporters on the plan late Monday, it could benefit as many as 500,000 American families in so-called “mixed-status” marriages in which one parent is not present in the US legally.

“This new process will help certain non citizen spouses and children apply for lawful permanent residence status that they are already eligible for without leaving the country and potentially putting themselves in harm's way. This action could protect approximately half a million American families and approximately 50,000 non citizen children under the age of 21 whose parent is married to a US citizen,” they said.

The official also said Biden will announce new actions to “facilitate the employment visa process for those who have graduated from college and have a high skilled job offer,” including for people who currently benefit from the DACA program.

“These measures show that the administration is committed to taking action within its legal authorities to secure our border and ensure that our immigration system is more fair and more just,” the official added.

The spouses of Americans have always been eligible to become US citizens themselves, but people who did not enter the US legally but later married a US national have long had roadblocks that make it more difficult compared to those who entered legally.

Anyone who enters the country illegally, absent other relief, must leave the US and remain abroad for a full decade before they are eligible for a legal pathway to residency and citizenship - even if they married an American after entering the country.

But the Biden plan would make use of an executive authority known as parole, which allows the government to set aside an illegal entry and grant work permits and residency status.

Eventually, undocumented immigrants married to Americans who receive relief through parole would be able to apply for permenant resident status, and later, US citizenship, by virtue of their marriage to a US citizen who would serve as their sponsor.

A Department of Homeland Security official said the new program for spouses of Americans would only apply to those who’ve been present in the country for a decade as of June 17, 2024. No one who entered the country after June 17, 2014 would be eligible.

The DHS official said the president’s actions “will advance our country's interest in keeping American families together, while ensuring anyone known to pose a threat to public safety cannot take part in our immigration system.”

The president’s move to create pathways to citizenship for undocumented spouses of Americans comes just weeks after he incurred the ire of immigration advocates by approving new harsh restrictions on asylum at the US-Mexico border.

Republicans are expected to oppose Biden’s plan and accuse him of creating incentives for illegal migration even though the new program only applies to people who’ve been in the US for ten years and will not benefit anyone who has entered the United States since 2014.

Karoline Leavitt, former president Donald Trump’s campaign press secretary, said in a statement that the program amounts to “mass amnesty” that will “undoubtedly lead to a greater surge in migrant crime, cost taxpayers millions of dollars they cannot afford, overwhelm public services, and steal Social Security and Medicare benefits from American seniors to fund benefits for illegals — draining the programs Americans paid into their entire working lives.”

Deirdre Schifeling, the chief political and advocacy officer for the American Civil Liberties Union (which is suing the Biden administration over his asylum restrictions) praised this latest action as one that “will help keep committed, loving families together, which strengthens all of our communities and is popular with voters.”

“This act by the president is the type of humane and commonsense action that has made America stronger, with resilient, hardworking, and patriotic people coming to our cities and small towns, building lives and vibrant, stable communities, generation upon generation,” she said.

Progressive congressman Joaquin Castro of Texas hailed the move as a “historic announcement” that will allow “hundreds of thousands of parents to drive their kids to school, get a job that pays a living wage, and participate fully in American society.”

“Congress must pass comprehensive immigration reform, but this is a compassionate step forward. I look forward to working with the Biden administration to help families access this relief,” he said.

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