Half a million immigrants could eventually get US citizenship under a new plan from Biden

  • Canadian Press

President Joe Biden listens as he meets with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in the Oval Office at the White House, Monday, June 17, 2024. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Joe Biden is taking an expansive election year step to offer relief to potentially hundreds of thousands of immigrants without legal status in the U.S., aiming to balance his own aggressive crackdown on the southern border earlier this month that enraged advocates and many Democratic lawmakers.

The White House announced Tuesday that the Biden administration will, in the coming months, allow certain spouses of U.S. citizens without legal status to apply for permanent residency and eventually citizenship. The move could affect upwards of half a million immigrants, according to senior administration officials.

To qualify, an immigrant must have lived in the United States for 10 years as of Monday and be married to a U.S. citizen. If a qualifying immigrant's application is approved, he or she would have three years to apply for a green card and receive a temporary work permit and be shielded from deportation in the meantime.

About 50,000 noncitizen children with a parent who is married to a U.S. citizen could also potentially qualify for the same process, according to senior administration officials who briefed reporters on the proposal on the condition of anonymity. There is no requirement on how long the couple must have been married, and no one becomes eligible after Monday. That means immigrants who reach that 10-year mark after Monday will not qualify for the program, according to the officials.

Senior administration officials said they anticipate the process will be open for applications by the end of the summer, and fees to apply have yet to be determined.

Biden will speak about his plans at a Tuesday event at the White House, which will also mark the 12th anniversary of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, a popular Obama-era directive that offered deportation protections and temporary work permits for young immigrants who lack legal status.

White House officials privately encouraged Democrats in the House, which is in recess this week, to travel back to Washington to attend the announcement.

The move could eventually make citizens of many of the estimated 1.1 million people who are married in to U.S. citizens but, until now, must leave the country for years to obtain legal status. Claudia Zuniga, of Houston, married a man who was in the United States since 2007 but left for Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, after they wed in 2017 to bide time until he could return legally.

Zuniga, 35, said her family's life "did a 180-degree turn" when her husband moved to Mexico. Reuniting with her husband "would be a dream come true."

"My husband could be with us," she said. "We could focus on the well-being of our children."

The Democratic president will also announce new regulations that will allow certain DACA beneficiaries and other young immigrants to more easily qualify for long-established work visas. That would allow qualifying immigrants to have protection that is sturdier than the work permits offered by DACA, which is currently facing legal challenges and is no longer taking new applications.

The power that Biden is invoking with his Tuesday announcement for spouses is not a novel one. The policy would expand on authority used by Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama to allow "parole in place" for family members of military members, said Andrea Flores, a former policy adviser in the Obama and Biden administrations who is now a vice president at FWD.us, an immigration advocacy organization.

The parole-in-place process allows qualifying immigrants to get on the path to U.S. permanent residency without leaving the country, removing a common barrier for those without legal status but married to Americans. Flores said it "fulfills President Biden's Day 1 promise to protect undocumented immigrants and their American families."

Tuesday's announcement comes two weeks after Biden unveiled a sweeping crackdown at the U.S.-Mexico border that effectively halted asylum claims for those arriving between officially designated ports of entry. Immigrant-rights groups have sued the Biden administration over that directive, which a senior administration official said Monday had led to fewer border encounters between ports.


Associated Press writers Stephen Groves in Washington and Valerie Gonzalez in McAllen, Texas, contributed to this report.