Immigrant families are cheering Joe Biden’s expansive move toward citizenship, even though some are being left out

HOUSTON – Hundreds of thousands of immigrants had reason to rejoice when President Joe Biden unveiled a hugely expansive plan to expand legal status to spouses of U.S. citizens, but inevitably some were left out.

Claudia Zúniga, 35, got married in 2017, 10 years after her husband arrived in the United States. After the wedding, he moved to Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, knowing that by law he had to live outside the country for years to gain legal status. “Our lives have changed 180 degrees,” she said.

Biden announced on Tuesday that his administration will, in the coming months, enable unincorporated spouses of U.S. citizens to apply for lasting residence, and ultimately citizenship, without having to first leave the country for up to 10 years. According to senior administration officials, approximately 500,000 immigrants could benefit from the aid.

To qualify, an immigrant must have lived in the United States for 10 years and be married to a U.S. citizen, as of Monday. Zúniga’s husband is ineligible because he was not in the United States.

“Imagine, it would be a dream come true,” said Zúniga, who works part-time for her father’s trucking company in Houston. “My husband could be with us. We could focus on the well-being of our children.”

Every immigration benefit — even one as massive as Biden’s election-year offer — has a cutoff date and other eligibility requirements. In September, the Democratic president expanded the ephemeral status almost 500,000 Venezuelans who lived in the United States on July 31, 2023. Those who arrived a day later were out of luck.

The Obama era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals The program, which has shielded hundreds of thousands of people who came to the United States as adolescent children from deportation and is commonly known as DACA, required applicants to be in the United States on June 15, 2012, and continuously for the previous five years.

According to an advocacy group, about 1.1 million spouses in the country were illegally married to U.S. citizens FWD.usmeaning hundreds of thousands will be ineligible because they have been in the United States for less than 10 years.

Immigration advocates were generally delighted with the scope of Tuesday’s announcement, while Biden’s critics called it a terribly misguided giveaway.

Angelica Martinez, 36, wiped away tears as she sat next to her children, ages 14 and 6, and watched Biden’s announcement at the Houston office of FIEL, an immigrant advocacy group. A U.S. citizen since 2013, she described a flood of emotions, including regret that her husband couldn’t go to Mexico when his mother died five years ago.

“Sadness and joy at the same time,” said Martinez, whose husband came to Houston 18 years ago.

Brenda Valle from Los Angeles, whose husband has been a US citizen since 2001 and, like her, was born in Mexico, renews his DACA permit every two years. “We can start planning more long-term, for the future, rather than focusing on what we can do in the next two years,” she said.

Magdalena Gutiérrez of Chicago, who has been married to a U.S. citizen for 22 years and has three daughters who are U.S. citizens, said she gained “a little more hope” after Biden’s announcement. Gutiérrez (43) wants to travel more often around the United States without fear of encounters with law enforcement that could lead to her deportation.

Allyson Batista, a retired Philadelphia teacher and U.S. citizen who married her Brazilian husband 20 years ago, recalls that a lawyer told her she could leave the country for 10 years or “stay in the shadows and wait for the law to change.”

“At first, when we got married, I was naive and thought, ‘OK, but I’m American.’ This will not be a problem. We will fix it,” Batista said. “I learned very early on that we were dealing with quite a dire situation and that there would be no way for us to continue with the immigration process successfully.”

The couple raised three children who are pursuing higher education. Batista is waiting for details about her husband’s ability to apply for a green card.

“I’m hopeful,” Batista said. “The next 60 days will really show everything. But of course I’m more than excited because every step forward is a step towards a final solution for all types of immigrant families.”

About 50,000 children of foreign nationals whose parents are married to a U.S. citizen also could be eligible, according to senior officials who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity. Biden also announced novel rules that will allow some DACA recipients and other adolescent immigrants to more easily apply for long-term work visas.

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