Biden Offers Legal Path to Undocumented Spouses of Citizens

(Bloomberg) -- President Joe Biden announced a streamlined path to legal status for more than 500,000 immigrants, launching his broadest effort yet to offer deportation protections while trying to blunt criticism by some allies of his recent border crackdown.

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Eligible spouses and children of US citizens who have been in the country for at least a decade can apply for lawful permanent residence without first being forced to leave the country. That’s a radical change from current policy, which requires those people to leave the US — sometimes for years — before allowing them to apply for permanent residency and work permits.

Biden on Tuesday rolled out the executive action during a White House event commemorating the anniversary of the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program for undocumented immigrants who came to the US as children, contrasting his approach with the “outrageous” policies of his November election opponent, Donald Trump.

“I refuse to believe that to secure our border, we have to walk away from being an American,” Biden said, adding that too many undocumented spouses of US citizens have lived in “fear and uncertainty” in their daily lives. “We can fix that and that’s what I’m going to do today.”

The measure will go into effect “later this summer,” Biden said, without providing a specific date.

The move serves as a counterweight to Biden’s border crackdown announced earlier this month that curbed asylum claims. The president framed the restrictions as necessary to stem the border crisis after a bipartisan immigration deal collapsed amid criticism from Trump, a gambit Biden called “pathetic and petty.”

Biden’s measure, which restricts migrants’ ability to seek asylum between ports of entry during periods of heightened migration, drew blowback from progressives and the head of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

“I also know many people in this room also had concerns about steps I’ve taken. I heard and respected from many of you, and many people behind me, the concerns you felt,” Biden told the audience in the East Room of the White House. “As president, I had to take these actions. Every nation must secure its borders, it’s that simple.”

Under the new policy, noncitizens who have been in the US at least 10 years as of June 17 and are legally married to American citizens are eligible to remain in the country and apply for legal status, subject to case-by-case approval by the Department of Homeland Security. Those approved will have three years to apply for permanent residency and will be eligible for work permits during that time. Anyone deemed a security threat is ineligible.

The White House estimates that the policy will protect around 500,000 spouses of US citizens. An estimated 50,000 children and stepchildren under 21 will also be covered.

Administration officials, speaking to reporters Monday on condition of anonymity to discuss the policy before its unveiling, touted the move as an effort to keep immigrant families together. Under current law, many undocumented spouses of US citizens are forced to leave the country and wait abroad, sometimes indefinitely, while seeking permanent residence. That barrier deters many from trying to adjust their status, one administration official said.

Tuesday’s move, similar to Biden’s other immigration actions, faces the risk of potential legal challenges.

The administration also unveiled policies Tuesday to help people in the DACA program to obtain high-skilled worker visas. Officials called on Congress to pass immigration legislation that would provide broader, long-term protections.

Some Republicans assailed the White House’s plans before the announcement. Make America Great Again Inc., the political action committee aligned with Trump, characterized the policy as “amnesty” that would encourage more illegal border crossings.

Immigrant-rights advocates cheered the move, though some expressed doubts that the latest measure would repair what they said was the damage from Biden’s asylum order.

Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, chief executive officer of the nonprofit Global Refuge, said the administration is walking a “tightrope” between securing the border and treating migrants humanely.

“If the question is whether this relief for undocumented spouses is an equal counterweight for limiting asylum access, I think it’s difficult to describe these as counter balancing,” Vignarajah said.

Biden is juggling rising concern among independent voters about chaos at the border against the desires of his progressive flank, as well as Latinos, among whom Trump has made inroads, according to polls.

The issue is particularly salient in Arizona and Nevada — two key battleground states in the presidential and Senate elections — which feature some of the nation’s highest concentrations of Hispanic voters, according to the Pew Research Center.

--With assistance from Jennifer Jacobs and Akayla Gardner.

(Updates to include Biden’s announcement, starting in first paragraph)

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