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Biden announces protections for immigrant spouses of U.S. citizens and their children, but Trump’s policies threaten to take it away

Migrants and their advocates welcomed President Joe Biden’s order protecting undocumented immigrants who are married to Americans.

By Benjamin Adelberg, Cronkite News

WASHINGTON - Under the previous rules, migrants like Karime Rodriguez – a U.S. resident for 20 years – had to leave the country to apply for a green card. Her parents brought her into the U.S. from Mexico at age 2.

The order Biden unveiled Tuesday will let such migrants complete their paperwork without leaving home, spouses, children and jobs.

That will help roughly half a million immigrants who are married to American citizens, according to the White House. The policy change will also benefit 50,000 of their noncitizen children under age 21 who also would be granted an easier path to a green card and eventual citizenship.

“This is a great win for our community. It is helping thousands and thousands of people,” said Rodriguez, 26, who works at Living United Change in Arizona, an advocacy group in Phoenix.

But, she added, “there’s so many people that are still left out….We still need permanent protections for many others, like my own sister, my mother and people who are close to me.”

Rodriguez herself would have benefited from the new policy, though she only spent about a month in Mexico in 2021 to do the paperwork to apply for a green card. And she got to see her father, who’d been deported eight years earlier.

Other migrants who have lived in the U.S. for decades can get stuck outside the country for months. That’s a predicament Biden vowed to end. Unveiling the new rules at the White House, with Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., at his side among the supporters of the new policy, he asserted that such hurdles deter migrants from seeking the process.

“They have to leave their families in America,” he said. “With no assurance they’ll be allowed back in the United States. So they stay in America.”

Rodriguez, a Grand Canyon University student studying communications and human relationships, married her husband Eric in 2022. As the spouse of an American she was entitled to seek a green card, but only from outside the United States.

Officials from the group she works for were among the immigrant advocates invited to the White House for Biden’s announcement.

Biden issued a crackdown two weeks ago limiting the number of asylum-seekers who will be processed at the border. That angered some allies who saw it as an effort to blunt Donald Trump’s hardline appeal on immigration.

The new Biden policy lets migrants apply for lawful status without leaving the country if they have lived in the United States for a decade and were married to an American by Monday June 17.

“That would have been great a year ago,” said Maleny Heiner, 27. “I wouldn’t have had to leave the country.”

Heiner, a college adviser in Utah, arrived illegally from Mexico with her parents at age 2. She married in 2018. Last August she went to Mexico to get a green card and ended up stuck there for seven months.

One unforeseen problem stemmed from her status under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. The Obama-era policy allowed young immigrants brought to America illegally as children to stay in the U.S.

“I filed my DACA on time for a renewal,” Heiner said, but the application was delayed and officials told her that her status had lapsed.

At what was supposed to be her final appointment at a U.S. consulate, she recounted, she was told that her attorney had failed to file the right paperwork to address her original unlawful entry into the United States.

“A lot of people have that misconception of once you marry a U.S. citizen you have everything set,” Heiner said. “It just takes a big toll emotionally, financially and on your stability.”

Heiner eventually reunited with her husband by acquiring a different visa. She’s still waiting for the green card, but is thankful she can do that from Utah.

“A lot of these processes make us feel like we have to prove our worthiness to society,” Heiner said, “and that seems super unfair because we’re worthy enough just for being here and for being alive.”

DACA recipients are allowed to work and attend school but the direct pathway to citizenship only opens by marrying an American citizen or lawful permanent resident.

Despite pressure from immigrant advocates, Biden has refused to open other pathways to citizenship, insisting that’s beyond his authority.

President Donald Trump tried to dismantle DACA in 2017 but was stopped by the Supreme Court in 2020.

Mario Montoya, 26, a DACA recipient from Phoenix who attended Biden’s announcement, said he’s worried that Trump will return to the White House.

“It does make me nervous especially with all the rhetoric that’s been going around about immigrants,” he said.

Montoya came to the United States from Mexico in 2003 at age 5. He graduated from Arizona State University and is now a research analyst for Aliento AZ, a youth-led community organization for immigrants. He’s not eligible for citizenship, though he’s been free from the threat of deportation since 2012 thanks to DACA.

“Those years can really … fill you with anxiety but I have to remain optimistic,” he said.

Biden also announced that college graduates will be eligible for a visa that lets them remain in the U.S. with sponsorship from an employer. That will help about 24,000 migrants in Arizona, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

Groups that favor tighter rules on immigration are likely to sue over the new policy.

“That’s just an inducement for more people to bring their kids to the United States illegally,” said Ira Mehlman, media director at Federation for American Immigration Reform. “When parents make decisions that adversely affect their children – that is a basic parental responsibility.”

Mehlman sees Biden’s plan as presidential overreach akin to DACA. Biden was vice president when Obama instituted that policy.

“What they’ve done is created a whole parallel immigration system … to serve their own political objectives,” Mehlman said.

Among the supporters is Rudy Molera, member of the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors, who had a front row seat in the East Room as Biden announced the new policy.

“President Biden is doing what needs to be done. It needed to be done in February,” Molera told Cronkite News afterwards.

“These people are here and they’re working hard. They’re taxpayers, they’re getting an education, they’re providing and they’re providing for our country and they need a pathway,” he said.

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