Biden unveils plan allowing hundreds of thousands to gain US citizenship | Joe Biden News

United States President Joe Biden has unveiled one of the largest immigration regularisation programmes in recent history, offering a pathway to citizenship to hundreds of thousands of immigrants without legal status in the country.

The new measures, announced on Tuesday, will allow some undocumented spouses of US citizens to apply for permanent residence — and eventually citizenship — without having to leave the country.

The move will affect more than 500,000 spouses of US citizens. About 50,000 noncitizen children under age 21 — whose parents are married to a US citizen — will also be eligible.

In a White House speech, Biden pitched the new executive action as a “common-sense fix” to the “cumbersome” system that is already in place.

“Under the current process, undocumented spouses of citizens must go back to their home country, for example to Mexico, to fill out paperwork to obtain long-term legal status,” he explained.

“They have to leave their families in America with no assurance that they will be allowed back in the United States. So they stay in America, but in the shadows, living in constant fear of deportation without the ability to legally work.”

The new measures, Biden added, would “fix” the problem without “any fundamental change in our immigration law”.

Tuesday’s announcement comes as immigration continues to be a central — and divisive — issue in the lead-up to presidential elections in November.

Earlier in the day, members of the Biden administration pitched the change as a boon not just to immigrant families but also to the country’s economy.

“Think about the stability this will bring to so many American families across the country,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a Tuesday news briefing. “These measures will help keep American families together and allow more young people to contribute to our economy and our country.”

Immigrant rights advocates also welcomed the new pathway to permanent residency, though they encouraged the Biden administration to do more. According to the White House, those eligible for the programme have been in the US for an average of 23 years.

“By providing this much-needed relief, the Administration has not only helped keep hundreds of thousands of families together, but also sent a clear and decisive message that immigrants are deeply rooted community members who help make America stronger,” Kica Matos, president of the National Immigration Law Center, said in a statement.

Matos added, however, that millions of people across the country are still waiting for a permanent solution to gain US citizenship.

“It’s well past time for Congress to get the job done and pass a pathway to citizenship,” she said.

Guidelines for the programme

To qualify for the spousal programme, an applicant must have lived in the US for 10 years as of Monday and be married to a US citizen.

If their application is approved, the applicant would have three years to apply for a green card and receive a temporary work permit. In the meantime, they would be shielded from deportation.

If granted a green card, they could eventually apply for US citizenship.

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

“These couples have been raising families, sending their kids to church and school, paying taxes, [and] contributing to our country,” Biden said Tuesday’s White House event. “This action is a better way. It doesn’t tear families apart.”

The Biden administration received pushback, however, over the requirement that eligible spouses had to have lived in the US for at least 10 years.

“It is a decade. You have to be here at least a decade to take part of this announcement that the president is making,” Jean-Pierre confirmed to reporters on Tuesday.

When asked about the 10-year cut-off, Jean-Pierre said that further reform required the cooperation of Congress.

“The way to actually deal with this is to have a comprehensive immigration legislation. It is for Congress to do their jobs and to move forward,” she said.

Anniversary of DACA

Tuesday’s White House event marked the anniversary of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) programme.

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

The Biden administration on Tuesday also announced guidance to make it easier for DACA recipients — known as Dreamers — to obtain skilled-work visas.

“I want those who have been educated at US colleges and universities to put their skills and knowledge to work here in America. I want to keep building the strongest economy in the world, with the best workforce in the world,” Biden said.

“This step builds on other action we’ve taken to support Dreamers, from defending [them] in the courts to expanding access to health care.”

A play for votes?

Immigration is set to be a key voting issue in November’s election: A poll earlier this year from the survey agency Gallup found that immigration had topped a list of key voter concerns, ahead of inflation and the economy.

Biden faces a close race against his Republican predecessor, Donald Trump, who pursued a hardline, anti-immigration stance while in the White House.

Reporting from the White House on Tuesday afternoon, Al Jazeera’s Kimberly Halkett said the administration is hoping the measure is going to “translate into votes” come November.

“What the official line is, is that this is going to boost the economy, that this is going to help the labour market, this is going to promote family unity,” Halkett said.

“But what the White House is really hoping is this is going to boost Joe Biden’s approval ratings which — in many cases, on a range of issues — are lagging behind his rival, former President Donald Trump.”

Gustavo Torres, executive director of immigrant rights group CASA, said Biden’s announcement would energise Latino communities to get out and support him in November. “This is what our communities have needed to rally behind President Biden for re-election,” he said.

Republicans, for their part, were quick to condemn Tuesday’s announcement, with Congressman Jim Jordan saying Biden was “planning amnesty for hundreds of thousands of illegal aliens already here”.

“Unbelievable,” Jordan wrote on social media.

Trump’s 2024 presidential campaign also accused the Democratic president of creating “another invitation for illegal immigration”.

“Biden only cares about one thing — power,” Trump campaign spokesperson Karoline Leavitt said.

“And that’s why he is giving mass amnesty and citizenship to hundreds of thousands of illegals who he knows will ultimately vote for him and the open-border Democrat Party.”

Overlaps in policy

But some of the president’s critics, particularly in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, have expressed concern that Biden’s immigration policies might hew too closely to Trump’s.

Earlier this month, the Democratic president signed an executive order that clamped down on the right to seek asylum at the US-Mexico border, which saw a surge in unauthorised crossings last year.

The move drew criticism from human rights advocates, who accused Biden of cowing to pressure from Republican Party legislators who have blamed him for the situation at the country’s southern border.

Chelsea Sachau, the managing attorney for the Florence Immigrant & Refugee Rights Project’s Border Action Team, told Al Jazeera earlier this month that the asylum restrictions would lead to ever-more “dangerous circumstances”.

“People will grow ever more desperate,” Sachau said. “We’ve seen [with] other border policies that, when people are forced into desperate circumstances, they will be forced to make heart-wrenching decisions.”

But Biden addressed the concerns in his Tuesday speech, saying the asylum measures were a reaction to deadlock in Congress.

“Two weeks ago, I did what Republicans in Congress refused to do: I took action to secure our border. That included restricting unlawful crossings at our southern border, making decision on asylum more quickly and so much more. And so far it’s working,” Biden said.

He added that Republicans refused to advance bipartisan immigration reform earlier this year because they believed it would “hurt” Trump’s re-election prospects in November.

“We were about to move forward when Republicans walked away from the deal for the most pathetic and petty of reasons: Donald Trump got on the phone, literally,” Biden told the audience.

He ended his speech by drawing a stark line between himself and Trump, whom he accused of “proposing to rip spouses and children from their families and homes and communities and place them in detention camps”.

He also called Trump’s comments on immigration outrageous: “We’re a nation of immigrants, and that’s who we are.”

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