White House announces plan to aid longtime undocumented immigrants


Javier Quiroz crossed the U.S. southern border illegally from Mexico with his mother when he was 3, and that passage has shadowed him all his life.

Now 33, he is a registered nurse married to a U.S. citizen in Texas who can sponsor him for a green card. They never applied because federal law requires that Quiroz first leave the United States, with no guarantee that he may return.

President Joseph Biden announced on Tuesday, with Quiroz standing beside him, that immigrant spouses of American citizens may apply for permanent residency without leaving the country, washing away their fears of being separated from their families and putting them on a path to U.S. citizenship.

“The steps I’m taking today are overwhelmingly supported by the American people, no matter what the other team says,” Biden said in a reference to Republican critics of his immigration policies. “The reason is simple, it embraces the American principle that we should keep families together.”

To sustained applause, Quiroz thanked the president for taking action to “protect American families like mine.”

The announcement at the White House captured a rare moment of Democratic joy on immigration, one of Biden’s weak points as the November elections approach, after years of record border apprehensions following the pandemic. Like President Barack Obama before him, Biden sought to rally Americans by highlighting the country’s immigrant tradition.

Behind him were lawmakers such as U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.), the son of formerly undocumented immigrants from Mexico, and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, a Cuban immigrant who was impeached by the House in a rebuke of Biden’s border policies.

Former president Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, criticized Biden’s plans Tuesday as a political effort to court voters. Trump has vowed to carry out mass deportations of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, if elected to a second term.

“Biden only cares about one thing — power — and that’s why he is giving mass amnesty and citizenship to hundreds of thousands of (immigrants) who he knows will ultimately vote for him and the Open Border Democrat Party,” Trump said in a statement. “Biden has created another invitation for illegal immigration through his mass amnesty order.”

The White House announcement marked the 12th anniversary of Obama’s election-year decision to grant renewable two-year work permits to hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children. That program aided more than 800,000 people, including Quiroz, but did not create a path to permanent residency.

The Obama program has been on fragile ground since Trump and other Republicans tried to end it in 2017. A federal judge has declared it unlawful and it is limited to existing applicants, who must renew work permits every two years.

Biden emphasized on Tuesday that he would continue to control the border but said it is long overdue for Congress to expand legal pathways for immigrants. The U.S. economy also needs workers, he said.

His plans are two-fold and will roll out this summer, he said.

An estimated 500,000 immigrants married to U.S. citizens, most from Mexico, will be eligible to apply for permanent residency through their spouses. Federal law requires undocumented immigrants to depart the country for up to 10 years and return legally.

The Biden administration will waive that requirement for eligible applicants who have lived in the United States for at least a decade as of Monday. They also must pass background checks and meet other requirements. After three years as permanent residents, spouses may apply for U.S. citizenship.

About 50,000 stepchildren of U.S. citizens may also apply for residency if they are under 21.

“My life is currently being lived in two-year increments,” Quiroz said in a telephone interview, adding that becoming a permanent resident is “going to be a huge relief and weight off my shoulders.”

Biden also announced a streamlined work-visa program for immigrants enrolled in Obama’s 2012 program, called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) — and other undocumented immigrants brought to the United States when they were children.

Applicants must have a college degree and a job offer in a high-skilled field such as science. However, they also must leave the United States and reenter legally, which left some immigrants skittish.

Melany, 21, who spoke on condition that she would not use her last name because she is fearful that Trump could be elected, is an undocumented immigrant from Mexico who recently earned a computer science degree from Duke University. She said she was days away from applying for DACA when the program was frozen. She would like a work visa, but is afraid to leave the country where she has lived since she was 4.

“Maybe I’ll just wait a little and see what happens to other people who are part of the program,” she said.

Sullibet Ramirez Alvarado, a 27-year-old medical student at the Stritch School of Medicine at Loyola University Chicago, said she would apply for a visa. The budding emergency-room doctor from Mexico has DACA and tens of thousands of dollars in student loans. She has lived in the United States since she was 5, and yearns for more stability.

“I don’t have so much mental power to focus on my immigration status every single day,” she said in a telephone interview as she rushed to her job at a hospital. “The focus should be on patient care.”

That is how Quiroz felt at the start of Biden’s term in 2021 when Democrats struggled to determine if they could create a path to U.S. citizenship. He and his U.S. citizen wife Haleigh are both nurses who worked on the front lines of the pandemic.

They fell in love in high school, bought a house in Texas, and have two children, a 2-year-old boy and a 5-year-old girl. He works at Houston Methodist West Hospital, one of the city’s busiest.

Quiroz was caring for a cancer patient in 2017 when the Trump administration sought to end DACA, and he called it one of the worst days of his life.

He beamed on Tuesday beside Biden, still stunned that citizenship is finally within his reach.

Thank you for what you did to help us get through the pandemic, pal,” Biden said. “And for all you’re doing for our country.”

Biden has spoken against Trump’s border policies and his incendiary language that has drawn comparisons to Nazi rhetoric. Biden has directed particular ire at a Trump policy that separated thousands of migrant families at the southern border to deter illegal crossings, and vowed that as president he would enact a “safe, orderly and humane” immigration system, more in line with American values.

But migrant crossings at the U.S. southern border surged to record numbers during Biden’s presidency and voter outrage led to some of his lowest approval ratings. Opponents pounced, and red-state governors like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott scored political points by sending migrants north, often to liberal enclaves.

Border apprehensions have averaged about 2 million per year since 2021, the highest levels ever recorded.

Biden administration officials stressed that any enduring immigration change would have to come as a result of Congress, but critics said his more permissive policies encouraged people to make the trek to the border and attempt to cross illegally.

Biden this month issued a proclamation aimed at reducing border crossings by restricting access to asylum if illegal border crossings remained above an average of 2,500 per day.



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