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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Biden gives legal protections to immigrant spouses of US citizens

President Joe Biden visits a Border Patrol station in Brownsville, Texas, on Feb. 29, 2024. Under a new policy announced Tuesday by Biden, some 500,000 immigrant spouses of U.S. citizens will be shielded from deportation and given a pathway to citizenship and the ability to work legally in the United States. (Kenny Holston/The New York Times)

By Zolan Kanno-Youngs, Miriam Jordan, Jazmine Ulloa and Hamed Aleaziz

President Joe Biden on Tuesday announced sweeping new protections for hundreds of thousands of immigrants who have been living in the United States illegally for years but are married to American citizens.

Under the new policy, some 500,000 spouses will be shielded from deportation and given a pathway to citizenship and the ability to work legally in the United States. It is one of the most expansive presidential actions to protect immigrants in more than a decade.

Biden will celebrate the program during a White House ceremony Tuesday marking the 12-year anniversary of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, which protects people who came to the United States as children from deportation.

The decision comes as Biden tries to strike a balance on one of the most dominant political issues in 2024. Aware that many Americans want tougher policies on the border, Biden just two weeks ago announced a crackdown that suspended longtime guarantees that give anyone who steps onto U.S. soil the right to seek asylum here.

Biden is also expected Tuesday to detail separate actions that will make it easier for young people living in the country illegally, many of them known as Dreamers, to access work visas.

Almost immediately after he issued the order to suspend asylum at the border, White House officials began privately reassuring progressives that the president would also help immigrants who had been in the nation without legal permission for years, according to people familiar with the conversations, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private discussions.

Tuesday’s move could help Biden address some of the blowback that his asylum restrictions elicited among members of his progressive base, who have accused the White House of betraying campaign promises to enact a more humane approach to immigrants.

The new benefits for spouses will not take effect immediately; senior Biden administration officials said they expected the program to launch by the end of the summer. Those eligible will then be able to apply for the benefits.

Marrying an American citizen generally provides a pathway to U.S. citizenship. But people who crossed the southern border illegally — rather than arriving in the country with a visa — must return to their home countries to complete the process for a green card.

That means long separations from their spouses and families. The new program allows families to remain in the country while they pursue legal status.

To be eligible, the spouses must have lived in the United States for 10 years and been married to an American citizen as of June 17. They cannot have a criminal record. The benefits would also extend to the roughly 50,000 children of spouses living in the country illegally who became stepchildren to American citizens.

The latest policy could help Biden in battleground swing states such as Nevada, Arizona and Georgia, where more than 100,000 voters in each of those states live in “mixed status” households, according to the American Business Immigration Coalition, which represents hundreds of companies and supports the proposed policy change.

“It’s the right thing to do, and it’s the smart thing to do,” said Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., who said Biden’s action would boost the economy in her state. “The road to the White House runs through Nevada, and people in my state are paying attention.”

Biden is relying on a program known as “parole in place,” which has been used for other populations, like families of military members. The status gives noncitizens the ability to temporarily live and work in the United States without fear of deportation.

In the days leading up to the announcement, some allies of former President Donald Trump have seized on the policy to accuse Biden of being weak on border security. “This is an attack on Democracy,” Stephen Miller, the architect of Trump’s anti-immigration policy, said on social media Monday.

One of the people that could be directly affected by the change is Ashley DeAzevedo, head of American Families United, whose husband is in the country without legal permission. Her group supports mixed-status families like hers. The couple has been married for more than a decade and has an 11-year-old child.

“It would be an absolute game changer to not have to worry about being separated, because right now he could technically be removed,” she said. “There’s always a concern if he gets pulled over or anything like that. It could be, you know, just catastrophic for our family.”

While some Democrats applauded Biden’s new policy, many immigration advocates remained concerned about the life span of the original program the White House will celebrate Tuesday.

In the years since President Barack Obama created DACA in 2012, it has benefited hundreds of thousands of young adults, enabling them to secure jobs and live without fear of deportation.

But DACA has been closed to new applicants since 2017, when Trump tried to end the program. It remains ensnared in litigation, and its long-term survival remains in question, even though it was revived for existing beneficiaries. DACA participants are now, on average, in their mid-30s.

Recipients who were once children fearful of having their parents deported “are now the parents afraid of getting deported,” said Bruna Bouhid-Sollod, senior political director United We Dream Action, an advocacy group for DACA recipients.

Biden appeared intent on addressing those fears with a forthcoming policy that would ease the process for Dreamers to be sponsored for a work visa by their employer, and would ease the way for an eventual green card. The administration is expected to issue guidance in coming days that will benefit both current DACA recipients and other people who have been shut out of the program since Trump was in office.

“It’s been a big fear for me that DACA could end,” said Monica Sandoval, 32, an emergency room nurse in Columbus, Indiana, who enrolled in the program immediately after it was unveiled.

Sandoval has renewed every two years, enabling her to keep her job and her nursing license.

She hoped the new process would allow her employer, a regional hospital, to sponsor her for a work visa and then a green card.

“This would be life-changing for me,” said Sandoval, who was brought to the United States when she was 12 and is the mother of two young children. “It would bring security to me and my kids, and I’d know for sure that I could keep doing the work I love to do.”

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