Biden weighs giving legal status to immigrant spouses of US citizens

Allyson Batista, a U.S. citizen, with her husband in the yard of their Philadelphia home. Photos: Michelle Gustafson for The Wall Street Journal
Allyson Batista, a U.S. citizen, with her husband in the yard of their Philadelphia home. Photos: Michelle Gustafson for The Wall Street Journal


Biden administration officials are considering green cards and deportation relief for hundreds thousands of immigrants who are living in the U.S. illegally and are married to U.S. citizens.

Twenty years ago, Allyson Batista consulted her priest with a dilemma. She had fallen in love with a man living in the country illegally, who had no hope of fixing his status.

“I think if you love somebody, you marry them, and you figure it out from there," she recalls the priest telling her.

So she did. Two decades later, the couple has three children and a successful construction business in Philadelphia. But they still lack certainty—about whether Allyson’s husband will be allowed to stay in the U.S. long enough to see his children become adults, or if the government will ever do something to help.

Now, families such as Batista’s are looking to the Biden administration, where officials have been seriously discussing a plan to help hundreds of thousands of immigrants living in the country illegally who are married to U.S. citizens.

The idea has gained currency inside the White House since last summer, despite the fraught nature of immigration politics heading into the 2024 presidential election. There is a growing recognition among Biden’s top political advisers that the president could benefit from taking a positive step on immigration to contrast with his tough talk on the issue, and with an expected executive order aiming to sharply curb illegal crossings at the southern border.

Officials inside the White House and at the Department of Homeland Security have been studying a range of proposals to provide work permits or deportation relief for millions of undocumented immigrants who have lived and worked in the U.S. for a long time. They have zeroed in on the population of mixed-status families, where typically the children and one parent are U.S. citizens, because they believe that demographic is the most compelling, according to administration officials and advocates who have spoken with them.

There are an estimated 1.1 million undocumented immigrants married to U.S. citizens, according to, an immigration advocacy group. Though immigrants can typically qualify for green cards when they marry American citizens, these spouses are barred under immigration law for any number of reasons, most commonly if they entered the country illegally more than once or used forged legal documentation. Some of these infractions, advocates say, happen when immigrants are young children but can still result in lifelong bans.

“These are people who have been here, paying taxes for decades," said Rebecca Shi, executive director of the American Business Immigration Coalition, a group of current and former CEOs that has been lobbying the Biden administration to provide work permits or other relief for undocumented spouses.

Though the announcement of a program isn’t imminent, officials say, the White House has discussed timing it before the election as a sort of one-two punch following an executive order that would likely upset immigration advocates.

Several advocates who have spoken with the president believe he supports the proposal andviews the idea as his chance to make an impact similar to PresidentBarack Obama’sDeferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. DACA granted work permits and deportation protections to more than 800,000 young undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers, and was launched months before Obama’s 2012 re-election.

Photographs of 17-year-old Nicholas Batista and 19-year-old Gabriella Batista, whose parents are Allyson Batista and her husband.
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Photographs of 17-year-old Nicholas Batista and 19-year-old Gabriella Batista, whose parents are Allyson Batista and her husband.

Though voters have grown increasingly concerned about unchecked illegal immigration into the U.S., pollsters have found there are two groups that voters feel particularly sympathetic toward—Dreamers and mixed-status couples.

Officials also view the idea as a potential antidote to rising tensions from within immigrant communities, particularly from many Mexicans and Central Americans who resent that large populations of newly arriving asylum seekers mostly from South America have been authorized to work legally through a range of administration efforts at the scale under discussion inside the White House.

A White House spokesman said the administration “remains committed to ensuring those who are eligible for relief can receive it quickly and to building an immigration system that is fairer and more humane. As we have said before, the Administration is constantly evaluating possible policy options."

Republicans have grown increasingly agitated by Biden’s use of administrative tools to offer more immigrants a quasi-legal status. They are also likely to oppose any effort.

“The Biden administration keeps putting illegal aliens ahead of American citizens, and this decision would be just another flagrant violation of immigration law," said Rep. Jim Jordan (R., Ohio), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which oversees immigration policy issues.

In December, mixed-status families and business leaders met with officials at the White House. Advocates have continued meeting with top White House staffers including domestic policy adviser Neera Tanden, and Tom Perez, director of the White House’s office of intergovernmental affairs, who also has served as an informal liaison to Latino communities. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas also has attended meetings on the issue.

The administration has come under increasing public pressure from business groups and big-city mayors such as Chicago’s Brandon Johnson, who earlier this month called on the White House to launch a large-scale relief program to help mixed-status families.

“In all my years of advocacy, I never felt so hopeful," said Batista, who met with Mayorkas in late January. After trying and failing to sponsor her husband for a green card, she has been campaigning since 2010 on the issue with an advocacy group called American Families United.

The most popular idea inside the administration is to use an immigration tool known as “parole in place," similar to the humanitarian parole the administration has used to admit hundreds of thousands of Afghan and Ukrainian refugees, along with migrants at the border who make appointments using a mobile app called CBP One.

Officials favor parole in place because a smaller version of the program already exists for undocumented spouses of military veterans.

Granting undocumented spouses parole in place would make many of them immediately eligible for work permits. Perhaps more significantly, it would clear the administrative cobwebs preventing spouses from being granted green cards, meaning the move could ultimately offer them a path to citizenship.

For that reason, the move could prove especially controversial as Republicans are likely to brand it a grant of mass amnesty. And because of a quirk in immigration law, only those spouses who entered the country illegally, rather than on a visa they overstayed, would be eligible for green cards, creating a new divide among the population.

Any program would come with a cutoff, so that only spouses who have been married to citizens for at least five or 10 years could qualify. Advocates estimate that of the 1.1 million spouses in the country, fewer than 700,000 would qualify.

One of the beneficiaries would be Batista’s husband, and gaining some kind of legal status would be transformative, she said.

He would finally be able to plan for retirement, or travel alone without needing his wife to speak for him at ticket counters. And it would lift the anxious cloud that has hung over Batista and her children: The fear that their father could disappear.

“If there is some kind of program, it gives us some personal sense of security that ICE won’t show up at our door at any moment," Batista said, referring to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

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