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Biden extends protections to undocumented spouses of citizens

DACA recipient Javier Quiroz Castro introduces U.S. President Joe Biden, before the announcement of immigration relief for spouses of U.S. citizens, coinciding with the 12th anniversary of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in Washington, June 18, 2024.
DACA recipient Javier Quiroz Castro introduces U.S. President Joe Biden, before the announcement of immigration relief for spouses of U.S. citizens, coinciding with the 12th anniversary of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in Washington, June 18, 2024.

For Javier Quiroz Castro, entering America's most famous home was an impossible dream – his parents brought him to the U.S. from Mexico at age 3, without legal immigration status.

But on Tuesday, in a blue suit with an American flag pinned to his lapel, Quiroz Castro – now a registered nurse – spoke these words at the White House.

"Growing up undocumented, it was not easy," said the Houston resident, who used the 12-year-old Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program to change his status. "Like thousands of other immigrants, my parents endured hard labor in order to provide for the family. They are a symbol of the American dream."

Beside him stood President Joe Biden, who used the 12-year anniversary of that landmark immigration policy to announce a move to offer protections to undocumented spouses of U.S. citizens. The new move could affect approximately half a million spouses of U.S. citizens, plus 50,000 noncitizen children who have a parent married to a U.S. citizen.

Biden extends protections to undocumented spouses of citizens
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"These couples have been raising families, sending their kids to church and school, paying taxes, contributing to our country for 10 years or more," Biden said. "And as a matter of a fact, the average time they've spent here is 23 years, the people that are affected today. They've been living in the United States all this time, in fear and uncertainty. We can fix that. And that's what I'm going to do today."

But, as the White House laid out in its fact sheet on the announcement, it is a bit more complicated.

To be eligible, a person must have lived in the U.S. for 10-plus years and be legally married to a citizen. It is retroactive – only those married before June 17, 2024, qualify.

Those who meet those two criteria – and whose application is approved by the Department of Homeland Security – then have three years to apply for permanent residency. They will be allowed to remain in the U.S., with their families, and be eligible for work authorization during this time.

Also included in Tuesday's announcement is a plan to accelerate the process of obtaining work visas for certain DACA recipients who have a U.S. degree and an employment offer relating to their field.

Both Biden and his main challenger have repeatedly brought up immigration on the stump, and Biden has made several recent moves on immigration, including a recent executive order that will temporarily restrict asylum eligibility at the U.S.-Mexico border whenever the number of migrants crossing unlawfully or without authorization reaches a daily average of 2,500. Those who cross the border illegally won't be eligible for asylum unless there are extraordinary reasons why they should be allowed to stay.

For many American voters in a tight election year, immigration is a more cleanly divisive topic that falls neatly along party lines. The divide was reflected in the wildly divergent reactions from two representatives from the border state of Texas.

"I applaud the Biden-Harris administration for heeding the call of so many of us to use its executive authority to keep American families together, support our Dreamers in the workforce, and boost our economy," Democratic congresswoman Sylvia Garcia said in a statement.

Whereas Ted Cruz, the Canada-born junior Republican senator from Texas, said: "While our border is being overrun by ISIS terrorists and cartel criminals, Joe Biden's top priority is to give amnesty to illegal aliens. He has utterly abandoned the American people. This amnesty program allows illegal aliens to get citizenship and vote in future elections. Make no mistake: Joe Biden views every illegal alien as a future Democrat voter."

And Republican candidate Donald Trump has gone further. He blames both Biden's policies and immigrants in general – often without clear evidence, and sometimes in the face of facts – for a number of ills, including crime, inflation, and even disease and terrorism.

"This is a Biden migrant invasion," Trump said at a recent campaign event. "An estimated 50% of inflation has been caused by the soaring cost of housing which is skyrocketing due to Joe Biden's tidal wave of illegal immigration and high interest rates."

On Tuesday, Trump campaign spokeswoman Karoline Leavitt accused Biden of using this sensitive issue to gain votes.

"Biden only cares about one thing — power — 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," she said, echoing some of Trump's concerns about the economy. "Biden has created another invitation for illegal immigration through his mass amnesty order."

Immigration advocates disagree, saying research shows that those who benefit from this policy contribute about $13 billion in spending power to the U.S. economy each year.

"We estimate that if they were to be U.S. citizens years down the line, they could actually increase that amount by about $5 billion each year," Phillip Connor, a senior demographer at bipartisan immigration-advocacy group, told VOA.

"These individuals are already working in industries that already have labor shortages with some kind of legal status that will be permitted through this policy that will allow them to go into careers that are barred from them right now, and to be more productive into our economy, which will be beneficial for their families, but also beneficial for our society as a whole,” Connor said.

And families affected by these policies say they can't put a price on it.

Rebecca Shi's mother was undocumented for nearly two decades – gaining legal status changed her life.

"She was a doctor in China, but for 19 years, undocumented here, so she worked in Chinese restaurants, she worked in nursing homes, caring for the elderly and emptying bedpans and wasn't able to practice her profession," Shi, who is executive director of the American Business Immigration Coalition, told VOA.

"And so when she was able to get parole in place and get her Green Card, she went back to the medical field and it's been thrilling and deeply humanizing for her and just showing that when you legalize people who are here for decades already contributing, you unleash their economic potential, and that's good for every American,” Shi said.

Quiroz Castro echoed that thought, telling the friendly crowd of congressional Democrats, immigration advocates and immigrants how he worked to return the warm embrace he got from the country he calls home.

"Being a nurse has allowed me to give back to my community while supporting my family especially during the pandemic, I helped take care of patients in our COVID-19 critical care unit," he said. "Saving American lives was only possible because of DACA. It allowed me to live and work and build a family in the only country I have ever known and loved."

Kim Lewis contributed from Washington.