Biden unveils plan allowing hundreds of thousands to gain US citizenship

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.

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.

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