11 July 2024

President Joe Biden on Tuesday announced a sweeping effort to provide a path to citizenship to hundreds of thousands of immigrants in the U.S. illegally who are married to U.S. citizens, an election-year move that contrasts sharply with Republican rival Donald Trump’s plan for mass deportations.

At a White House event, Biden criticized Trump for separating migrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border and using incendiary language about immigrants in the U.S. illegally, including comments that they were “poisoning the blood of our country.”

“It’s hard to believe it’s being said, but he’s actually saying these things out loud. And it’s outrageous,” Biden said. “I’m not interested in playing politics with the border or immigration. I’m interested in fixing it.”

The new Biden program will be open to an estimated 500,000 spouses who have lived in the U.S. for at least 10 years as of June 17, officials said on Tuesday. Some 50,000 children under age 21 with a U.S.-citizen parent also will be eligible.

Biden, a Democrat seeking a second term in the Nov. 5 presidential election, took office vowing to reverse many of Trump’s restrictive immigration policies. But faced with record levels of migrant arrests at the U.S.-Mexico border, Biden has toughened his approach.

Earlier this month, the president barred most migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border from requesting asylum, a policy that mirrored a similar Trump-era asylum ban and drew criticism from immigration advocates and some Democrats.

Biden’s planned legalization program for spouses of U.S. citizens could reinforce his campaign message that he supports a more humane immigration system and show how he differs from
Trump, who has long had a hardline stance on both legal and illegal immigration.

“The Statue of Liberty is not some relic of American history,” Biden said. “It still stands for who we are.”

The program will likely face legal challenges and a future administration could attempt to end it. Texas Governor Greg Abbott, a Republican whose state has battled Biden in court over
immigration policy, said in a statement that the new effort was “blatantly illegal” and “pandering for votes.”

The U.S. already provides a path to citizenship for immigrants who are married to Americans and entered the country legally on a visa. But in most cases, those who enter illegally must first leave the U.S. for years before being allowed to return legally.

The new program will allow the spouses and their children to apply for permanent residence without traveling abroad, removing a potentially lengthy process and family separation.

The path to obtain permanent residence could take months or years. From there, they could apply for citizenship. People who have disqualifying criminal history would not be eligible.

The implementation will roll out in coming months and the majority of likely beneficiaries would be Mexicans, Biden officials said on a call with reporters.

Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador on Tuesday said the decision to regularize Mexican families’ migratory status in the United States is “very good news”, celebrating
Biden’s announcement during a press conference.

Biden’s White House remarks were tied to the anniversary of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

Former President Barack Obama and then-Vice President Biden launched the DACA program in 2012, another major legalization effort that currently grants deportation relief and work permits
to 528,000 people brought to the U.S. as children.

The Biden administration also announced guidance to make it easier for DACA recipients to obtain skilled-work visas.

MIXED POLLS

Trump campaign spokesperson Karoline Leavitt called Biden’s new program “amnesty” that would create “another invitation for illegal immigration.” Trump has highlighted crimes committed by immigrants and has repeatedly pledged to deport millions of people if elected.

A little more than half of U.S. voters back deporting all or most immigrants in the U.S. illegally, Reuters/Ipsos polling shows.

At the same time, separate polling by the advocacy group Immigration Hub found 71% of voters in seven election battleground states backed allowing spouses in the U.S. illegally for more than five years to remain.

Rebecca Shi, executive director of the American Business Immigration Coalition, said focus groups conducted by her organization with independent and Republican voters found they
supported legal status for spouses.

“It boosts turnout in terms of Latino and base voters, but it also has support with the middle and the right,” she said on a call with reporters on Monday, adding that most people thought
the spouses could already legalize.

LIVING IN FEAR

One couple who could potentially benefit from the action was eagerly awaiting more details.

Megan, a social worker from the election battleground state of Wisconsin, met her husband, Juan, two decades ago when she worked with his relatives at a restaurant during her college
summer break.

Juan’s family, from the Mexican state of Michoacan, had come to the U.S. for generations as seasonal workers, with his grandfather participating in a U.S. program for farmworkers.
Juan was in the country illegally, but she never thought it would be an issue.

“I assumed maybe you pay a fine or something,” she said. “The punishment is just totally disproportionate.”

They have two daughters now – ages 4 and 7 – and still have not found a way to fix Juan’s status. Reuters is withholding their last names because of Megan’s concern they could face backlash.

Wisconsin does not issue driver’s licenses to immigrants in the U.S. illegally, and the couple worry that Juan, who works as a landscaper, could one day be pulled over and deported.

She said the family likely would uproot and relocate to Mexico if Juan was ever sent back.

“It’s just a low-level stress that’s always there,” she said.